Photography that brings the past to life by Frank Wiersema: an update

TRB Frank Wiersema

In 2017 photographer Frank Wiersema together with Hunebedcentrum made a series of photos to show various aspects of life with the stone age people of the Funnelbeaker culture, famous for building the impressive megalithic monuments, the Hunebedden. From recent DNA research we now know that these photos were not accurate. Traits like blond hair, blue eyes and light skin only appeared after what looks like a big migration that replaced the neolithic people from the Funnelbeakerculture. DNA from the Funnelbeaker people shows a direct lineage to the first farmers from the region of Anatolia in southern Turkey. These people most likely had dark features, dark hair, dark eyes and a dark olive skintone. We now made new photos with a different cast to match with these new insights.

TRB Frank Wiersema

During the stone age, the semi nomadic life of the hunter gathered was gradually abandoned for life in permanent dwellings. In the north-eastern parts of the Netherlands, the Funnelbeaker people were the first to live in the same place all year around. Personally I believe that most of daily life happened outside, working the land, but also hunting and gathering, for that was still the main source of food. This picture shows that life indoors could also have been rather cozy, around the central fire place, cooking food in the typical Funnelbeaker pottery.

From examination of bones we know that certain women had arms as strong as those of modern Olympic rowers, from making the same repetitive movements while grinding the grain, like the woman in this photo is doing.

TRB Frank Wiersema

The Hunebedbuilders most likely drank beer. This picture shows the process of mashing. Malted grains seeped in water are heated by hot stones. This releases sugars, that are needed to ferment to alcohol. In the archaeology, stones are found that are cracked through heating. There is no brewing gear found from the Funnelbeakerculture, so for that we had to make an educated guess. Brewing vats out of sandstone are found in neolithic Orkney and in Goblekli Tepe, but in our region they probably used wood. Vats like the one depicted in this photo were common in the early middle ages and go back as least as far as the iron age, so my guess is also to neolithic times.

There is a hot debate on weather agriculture was invented for food or for beer. There was plenty of food around the time farming started, so there doesn’t seem to have been a necessity for a stable food source through agriculture. Traces of beer production go back to even before agriculture, the oldest yet found are from the Natufians 13.000 years ago in present day Israel. Gobekli Tepe was a temple complex built by hunter gatherers ca 12.0000 years ago at the dawn of agriculture, where large groups of people came together. Multiple vessels that can each hold up to 160 liters were found there that were used for brewing. This all indicates the importance of beer in the process of the transition to agriculture.

Contrary to origin stories of beer being invented by accident because someone left a loaf of bread out in the rain, beer brewing must have been a deliberate process. Each step – from grain to malt, suger conversion through mashing, and fermenting to alcohol, are steps that require precision and skill.

Personally I think malt must have been important to them, because mashing malt results in sugar. Sweet flavors are rare in nature, and it is something that we crave. We do know though, that they did ferment to beer. Fermentation is done throughout the existence of mankind, even before modern humans. This must have been a process that people were very familiar with long before grains were being used.

In most of the later brewing traditions, brewing used to be done by women, so here we also chose to depict women brewing.

TRB Frank Wiersema

The Funnelbeaker people were the first farmers in this region of the Netherlands. That did not mean that they completely stopped hunting and gathering. The farming they did was on a relatively small scale and would most likely not have been enough to sustain them completely. This does tie in with the assumption that their growing of crops was at least in part for brewing beer. An important part of their diet still came from gathering food from the wild, as is depicted here.

TRB Frank Wiersema

Much of what we have from the Funnelbeakers material culture, is from what was deposited in bogs. A wide range of objects are found in the peat, the soil that swamps turned into over the centuries; from pottery, to animal skulls, to flint stone – either beautiful flint axes or blades, or even just the raw material. We don’t know anything about the belief system of the Funnelbeaker people. The way that certain objects are clustered together and the frequency with which they were deposited, does suggest that they were possibly offered to the water.

Depicted here is an artistic impression of such an offering.

Drenthe region is famous for its bog bodies, naturally mummified bodies of people that have often been sacrificed. These bog bodies are from a much later time period, from the late bronze age and iron age, and from a much different culture.

TRB Frank Wiersema

Though we do not know anything about the belief system of the Hunebedbuilders, we do know that the impressive Hunebedden (dolmen) were made to burry people in. We are used to seeing them as stone structures dotted around the landscape, but back in the day they were covered with a mound of earth, leaving only the entrance exposed, like in this image.

Hunebedden were not built for one single grave. Once it was constructed, it was used for even several hundred years; burials kept being added.

There is no sign of hierarchy among the Funnelbeaker burials, as opposed to burials in the following cultures, suggesting that they did not have a social structure with an important individual or house of power ruling over substitutes, but a likely a more egalitarian social organization.

Frank Wiersema graduated from the Photoacademy Amsterdam in 2010 with illustrational photography. With his photos he likes to tell stories and show the world in a way that is just that bit more interesting than everyday life. During his time at the academy he developed a style characterized by hyper-realism and a keen eye for detail. After his graduation he started applying his type of production to history, a subject-matter that he has been passionate about for most of his life. Through different projects, he built a network of living history and experimental archaeology, enabling him to set up high end productions that picture a detailed and vivid image of everyday life, in a historically correct way.


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