The phases of Sysmä´s prehistory (From the text of Sysmän Esihistoriaopas by Anssi Malinen, Lahden kaupungin museo )12.000-9.000 years ago nearly all of Finland was covered in the post-glacial lakes. Only the highest hills of the Päijänne region were above water. Signs of ancient habitation have been found on what were the shores of former islands.
The Sysmä region has, thanks to its advantageous location along waterways, been attracting inhabitants long before the beginning of the Historic Era. The most well known period in Sysmä´s prehistory dates back to the end of the Iron Age, although habitation in the area has roots that are much older, reaching into the Stone Age. Over thousands of years, the environment and mode of life have changed considerably, but past generations have left their mark on the landscape, enablinbg modern man to get in touch with ancient living.
The first inhabitants of the Päijät-Häme region settled in the upper reaches of Porvoonjoki River as early as 8500 BC. From there, habitation quickly spread further north. Little reasearch has been done on Stone Age Sysmä; consequently, there is only limited knowledge of the early stages of habitation. Based on ceramic findings discovered at settlements, it can be concluded that the area was permanently settled during the Early Comb-Ceramic Period at the latest, i.e. around the beginning of 5100 BC. As the Päijänne water system has been an important thoroughfare throughout the Prehistoric Era, however, it is likely that humans set foot in the area even earlier.
During the Stone Age, people earned their living from hunting and fishing. Settlements were located in the vicinity of natural thoroughfares and hunting and fishing areas. It was not unknown for the entire household to be moved several times a year. An area of the size of Sysmä was propably not able to sustain a large population, and the number of inhabitants at that time was propably no greater than a few dozen.
The beginning of the Bronze Age, circa 1900 BC, did not entail a significant change for inland habitants. Metal was imported and therefore remained rare. The old means of livelihood remained the most important means of living, although small-scale animal husbandry and agriculture were also introduced. The Bronze Age and early Iron Age in inland areas is called the Early Metal Age to differentiate it from the coastal cultural region, where more dramatic changes took place. In coastal areas, agriculture bacame more prominent, bringing new beliefs and burial customs with it. As a result, coastal areas were linked more firmly with Scandinavian culture. Inland areas, however, were more greatly affected by eastern influences.
Iron production skills spread to Finland approximately 500 BC. Iron ore was excavated from lakes and swamps, and local tool production made slash-and-burn cultivation possible on an even wider scale than before. Livelihoods, however, were based on a mixed economy where hunting and fishing played a central role well into the Iron Age. From the beginning of the 7th ventury, land cultivation gradually became more prominent as a source of livelihood in the Sysmä region, along with hunting, fishing and slash-and-burn cultivation. At the same time, permanent village settlement began to take shape, forming a foundation for later inhabitation which would continue into modern times.
In the Viking Era and during the Crusade period at the end of the first millennium and the beginning of the second, the Sysmä region was one of the most important centres of the eastern Häme region. Above all, the habitants of ancient Sysmä owed their prominent position to the fur trade; the proximity of wilderness areas and a favourable new kind of prosperity to inland inhabitants. This resulted in abundant weapon and jewellery findings among archeological objects, as well as treasure caches found in Voipala and on an island in Lake Ylimmäinen. Additional findings, apparently belonging to the cache, were discovered in a field in Pappila in year 2000. All there hiding places containing silver coins and jewellery date back to the 11th century.
The latter part of the Iron Age was quite restless. Even scarsely populated Finland became an attractive target for the troops of foreign tribes, as prosperity increased and trading posts and permanent settlements grew along waterways. These plundering expeditions could sometimes, however, come to an unfortunate end for the attacker, as local took effective defense measures. In order to fend off attackers, fortresses were built on high hills and cliffs. These hill forts served as places of refuge where local inhabitants could seek shelter for themselves and their valuables. At the same time, they served as part of a communications system; as the enemy drew closer, beacons were lit on the fortified hills to signal an early warning of the approaching intruders. It is not know for sure that ancient forts actually existed in Sysmä, although judging by its location the rocky hill at the mouth of Tainionvirta River, incidentallynames Linnavuori (Fort Hill), might very well have been one. State politics at the Crusade Period also brought foreign conquerors to Häme, as the region bacame angaged in a power battle between sweden and Novgorod. South-west Finland had long had close links with Sweden, but in Päijät-Häme the influence from the east remained clearly evident, even after the west of Finland was placed permanently under Sweden´s rule.
Types of prehistoric remains found in Sysmä
Approximately 130 prehistoric remains have been found in Sysmä. They span several thousands of years, from the Stone Age to the end of the Iron Age. Often, there are hardly any above-the-ground sigs of ancient remains, and the visitor is required to have a bit of imagination and basic knowledge. In spite of this landscape animated withn ancient spirit can itself induce rich experiences and shed new light on Finnish cultural heritage.
Although the Sysmä remains hold national signifigance, they have not yet been researched to any great extent. The first excavations were organized in 1919 at the Supittu stone cairn and the Iron Age burial ground in a field in Päivärinta in the region of Voipala. Little research has been carried out since thn. The pace of research activity, including that in Sysmä, did not pick up until the mid-1990s. Excavations have been conducted in several Iron Age burial grounds and settlements, with plenty of new remains being discovered.
Stone Age Settlements
Stone Age settlements were generally located right on the shore, on account of proximity to hunting and fishing grounds and good access to thoroughfares. Nowadays, however, settlements can be found quite far from the shore, as the uplift of land has noticeably reshaped the landscape.
More often than not there are no above-ground signs of a settlement; sites can often only be located based on findings. Sometimes shallow depressions, usually approximating an oval shape, can be observed in the settlements. These depressions form the foundation for dwellings dug partially into the ground. The most common findings include pieces of pottery, quartz fragments created while making stone objects, and fragments of burnt bones from game animals.
There are dozens of known Stone Age settlements in Sysmä, situated in the sheltered bays of Lake Päijänne and along smaller waterways. There is a cluster of settlements in and around the Liikolanlahti area. Due to the uplift of land, however, these settlements can often be found a little further away from the present-day shoreline.
Early Metal Age settlements and Lapp cairns
Early Metal Age settlements are often difficult to distinguish from those from the Stone Age, as the findings are quite similar. Many stone Age settlements have been inhabited as late as the Bronze Age. Usually, an Early Metal Age settlement is recognised based on the ceramics, which differ from Stone Age ceramics. In Sysmä, ceramics of this type have been discovered at a settlement situated on the eastern shore of the Majutvesi Island.
During the Bronze Age, a new burial custom spread to Finland´s coastal areas, whereby the deceased were buried in often rather large barrows. At the same time, cremation became customary in lieu of the inhumation burials that were previously the norm. In inland areas, the cremation custom was adopted a little later on. The barrows, which in inland areas are called Lapp cairns, are much more modest than those found in coastal areas. They are normally situated close to a body of water, on rocky islands and capes - often in places with good visibility. A few lapp cairns have been found in Sysmä. These have not, however, been excavated.
Iron Age cemeteries and settlements
Cremation was the prevalent burial custom in Iron Age burial grounds. Towards the end of the Iron Age, inhumation burials became more commonplace, although to date these types of burial sites have not been found in Sysmä. In the Sysmä burial grounds, the deceased are generally buried in low-built dirt cairns, or in stone fields invisible from above the ground, called cremation cemeteries. Accompanying the deceased into the afterworld were weapons, jewellery, dishes and other such utensils.
Burial grounds were usually located nera populated areas, and concequetly centred in areas most dendely populated during the Iron Age. Since the Viking Age, if not earlier, the area around the church has been the focal point in Sysmä; other significant population centres were located along the Tinionvirta waterway at Lake Nuoramoisjärvi and Lake Joutsjärvi. In spite of the density of the population, actual settlement findings have been scarce. One explanation for this could be that during the Historic era communities tended to congregate together in one area; the pressures of such land use may have resulted in the destruction of the vast majority of Iron Age settlements.
The majority of the Iron Age burial grounds in Sysmä date back to the Viking Age and the Crusade Period, i.e. the end of the first millennium and the beginning of the second. The oldest cairn to be investigated, located at Ihananiemi in the village of Suurikylä, has however been found to date back as far as the 4th century. Another cairn representing an earlier era is located at Supittu, where excavations were conducted as early as the beginning of the 20 th century. The burial site dates back to the 7th centurt, i.e. the Merovingian Age.
sacrificial stones, otherwise known as cup-marked stones, are the most prevalent group of ancient remains to be found in Sysmä. There are over 50 known sacrificial stones in the municipality, located in the close proximity to iron Age dwellings and burial grounds. They take the form of either field stones or exposed rock, into which round, cup-like indentations have been carved. The quantity of the cups varies; at other times there may be dozens of them, even into the hundreds.
The cup-,marked stones were most likely made primarily during the Iron Age, although they were still used in the Historic Era, when small offerings of grain or milk for example, are known to have been placed in them in order to safeguard livestock and guarantee and abundant crop. In addition, rainwater collected in the cups is know to have been used as a healing potion. Links between cup-marked stones and fertility magic during the Iron age have been speculated. On the other hand, they may have originally been connected with worshipping the dead. Folklorist martti haavio suggests that, according to Estonian tradition, a cup was mad for each deceased person in a family; legend has it that the soul of that person, in the shape of a bird, would come back to eat and drink from the cup.
Sysmä as a manor country
Sysmä has been steeped in history since the 15th century. It has always been known as the breadbasket district and for its large manors. In late 19th century there were still 30 manors in Sysmä, but today there are 10. The most familiar to travellers are the Old Manor of Virtaa (Vanha-Kartano) and The Virtaa Manor (Virtaan Kartano). Both are located in a landscape of great cultural and historical value on the Tainionvirta and Virtaankoski rivers. Their history has its roots in the 16th century and is closely linked with the eminent Tandefelt family. Agriculture, forestry and tourism are practiced on both estates. The third manor house, which also fascinates the travellers is The Nordenlund Manor in Nuoramoinen village. Nordenlund has also a long and colourful history, the first owner of this manor was Sigfrid Henricsson. All these three manors are private homes and tourists are allowed to visit them only in groups (minimum 20 pax).
You can get acquainted with these manors by visiting their web pages: www.virtaankartano.fi, www.nordenlund.com, www.vanha-kartano.fi
Traditions are alive
The vast forests of Sysmä have provided its inhhabitants with a living and a practical pastime. The many artisans and cottage indutsries in Sysmä are closely associated with Finnish wood. The various objects od art, wooden souvenirs and textile products represent Sysmä handicraft traditions at their best.
Don´t miss Sysmä´s sahti and rye bread!
No visit to Sysmä is complete without its renowned brew, SAHTI. It is still made to the time-honored recipe on many farms. There is no wedding or a funeral in Sysmä without this special drink. "So prized a drink is sahti that it should always be said and written in capitals" says an old Sysmä adage. The easiest way to get to taste sahti is to attend Uotinpäivät fair during the last weekend in July at the Sysmä Rotary club´s sahti saloon. Another renowned souvenir of Sysmä is its fresh, authentic rye bread, which is available in the village shops. Once you have tasted it, you are certain to return to Sysmä.