Tag Archives: archaeology

Historical fantasies or the inherent subjectivity of archaeology? Die Pfahlbauer in Bern.

In the Swiss national newspaper NZZ, Urs Hafner wrote an eloquent short but critical review of the current Pile dwelling-exhibition in the Bernisches Historisches Museum titled `Historische Phantasie´ (in German). His criticism focuses on the little attention the Neolithisation process gets in the exhibition and the large panels showing scenes of daily live in Neolithic and Bronze Age Pile dwelling villages. (My review can be found here.)

Bauen und Wohnen (Neolithikum) Leucht-Wandbilder (270 x 1000 cm), Ausstellung Die Pfahlbauer - Am Wasser und über die Alpen, in Zusammenarbeit mit illustra.ch Bernisches Historisches Museum

Bauen und Wohnen (Neolithikum) Leucht-Wandbilder (270 x 1000 cm), Ausstellung Die Pfahlbauer – Am Wasser und über die Alpen. Atelier Bunter Hund, in Zusammenarbeit mit illustra.ch. Bernisches Historisches Museum

First, it should be said that by the time of the oldest known Swiss pile dwellings (~4300 BC), the processes of Neolithisation in Switzerland and surrounding areas can be considered concluded (`Neolithic Revolution´ is by archaeologists today seen as an antiquated term). Already 1000 years before the first lake side villages sedentary farmers were living in regions north of the Alps, including Switzerland (e.g. at Gächlingen, Schaffhausen, Bottmingen/Bäumliackerstrasse, Basel and Herznach-Unterdorf, Aargau).

Hafner’s main criticism is the projection of our believes and subjective interpretations on aspects of the lives of past peoples. He wonders whether we know how houses were furnished and whether we actually know if people had chairs and tables in their houses or not. Actually, I believe it can be assumed we do know. As the exhibition shows the preservation at these sites is of such quality that if such items of furniture were common, we would have found them. We also know there were fireplaces in the houses, we know which artefacts were found where within a settlement, so also whether that was within houses or not. We can often tell how certain artefacts were used and what people ate. This amazing range of archaeological evidence allows us many unexpected insights into the daily lives of prehistoric people.

Lastly, archaeology is a science which studies the lives of past people through their material remains. And although we can never assume to be objective – we archaeologists are too much part of our own culture – we have a large and ever-increasing knowledge and understanding of prehistoric people, not in the least because of advances in other scientific subjects with which we cooperate, such as physical anthropology and palaeoenvironmental sciences. But yes, some of our interpretations are just that, interpretations. That is our job as archaeologists, to collect the archaeological evidence using up-to-date scientific methods, to subsequently interpret this evidence to our best ability and share our findings with the public. It goes without saying, we do this from our own position in the world. But doing so we also incorporate the current knowledge base of the discussed period as well as others, here in Switzerland and beyond. Moreover, this is a cumulative knowledge, gathered by scientists throughout the past few hundred years.

The panels in the exhibition show what we know about the people living on the lakes between 4300-800 BC resulting from the described scientific processes and the most likely interpretation of this knowledge. And that there is some fiction in them – as there is in the paintings by Anker albeit far, far more – should be clear to visitors. As archaeologists we use such visualisations to show what we know about (pre-)historic life. The medium dictates that this is impossible without including some fiction, in the same way a historical novel does, although less of course. So, should we make the general public read scientific reports instead? Stop making reconstruction visuals? Stop writing historical novels or cartoons and designing exhibitions? Or provide an accompanying books which are to be read before visiting the exhibition? I think not.

Archaeology and visual representation have a long history together. This includes photography and drawing. Both are an integral part of the archaeological process, drawing arguably a bit more. Drawing is deeply integrated in the archaeological processes of recovery, understanding and interpretation. This already starts during the excavation and continues afterwards. Producing field plans, phase plans and finds drawings help the archaeologist understand the evidence from the past (Wickstead 2008). Scenic reconstructions are a further step in this process. When making a new scenic interpretation of the finds from the Iron Age archaeology at the salt mines of Hallstatt, Rescheiter et al (2013) have written a scientific text to accompany it and explain their decisions on what to show and why. (There exists an extensive literature on the visualisation of archaeology which cannot all be dealt with within the space of a blog post). This will be interesting for fellow scientists, perhaps less so for a general audience in an exhibition. Forster (2012) takes a different approach. She shows the making of a scenic reconstruction of the interpretation of a shepherd’s shelter and the find from it. It poignantly shows what the archaeological evidence is and what interpretation. I could, for example, also imagine documenting the process of the making of scenic panels such as those shown in Bern in film, which can be shown as part of the exhibition. It is now up to the exhibition makers in Bern whether they see it fit to provide more information concerning these panels or not. As an archaeologist I’d be interested in their opinion. Certainly it is in itself a success that the panels are being discussed at all.

Dominic Groebner Hans Reschreiter NHM Wien 2012

By D. Groebner – Hans Reschreiter – Naturhistorisches Museum Wien [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

That does not take away that to not attempt to interpret would be a serious deficiency on the side of the archaeologists. So it is not that we archaeologists do not want to look upon the `Pfahlbauer´ objectively, or in Hafner’s words `ohne Projektionen´. But firstly these panels might be less subjective than might be expected (we do know, for example that the Lady of Spiez-Einigen was buried lying on a sheepskin) and secondly, we simply have no choice but to be – to some extend – subjective. And even if we could travel back in time, we could still not truly know what it was to be a farmer living on the Lake of Biel in 1800 BC.




Forster E. (2012). Vom archäoligischen Befund zum Lebensbild, Reitmaier, Th. [Hrsg.], Letzte Jäger, erste Hirten. Hochalpine Archäologie in der Silvretta, Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden, Chur, 67-69. DOI:

Reschreiter, H. , Pany-Kucera, D. & Gröbner, D. (2013). Kinderarbeit in 100m Tiefe? neue Lebensbilder zum prähistorischen Hallstätter Salzbergbau, Karl & R. Leskovar, J. [Hrsg.], Interpretierte Eisenzeiten. Fallstudien, Methoden, Theorie. Tagungsbeiträge der 5. Linzer Gespräche zur interpretativen Eisenzeitarchäologie. Studien zur Kulturgeschichte von Oberösterreich, 37 25-38.

Wickstead, H. (2008), Drawing archaeology, in Duff, L. & Sawdon, Ph. [eds.], Drawing: the purpose. Bristol, U.K., Intellect Books. 13-27

Blogging Archaeology – Join us!

Blogging Archaeology

It is already the last month of Doug’s Blogging Archaeology Carnival and although I have not been able to join in every month’s instalment, it has been great to see such a large part of the international archaeological blogging community come together and take part. However, it has been mostly bloggers from the English speaking world. And that is something I am a bit surprised about and I would really like to see changed. It would be fantastic to see more archaeologists from non-English speaking countries to start their own blogs and become more active on social media. So I would like to take the opportunity that Doug gave us by asking us where we are going with archaeological blogging or where we would like it to go and take stock of the archaeological social media and blogging situation in the country where I live and work: Switzerland.

Now, I am not sure I have not missed anything here or there, but as far I am aware there are at the moment, beside this blog, only two archaeological research blogs being actively maintained in Switzerland: kAltes Eis, the newest, and Silvretta Historica, which I helped set up in 2011. The Alpine Archaeology blog was part of a course I taught at the University of Zürich in 2011 and 2013. A facebookpage which resulted from that is still maintained by a few colleagues and me. The L’Arkeoblog is, as far as I know, the only other active personal partly archaeologically themed blog in Switzerland. Surprisingly, there no other personal research blogs by research students or other archaeologists that I know of, although I have noticed some MA-students and a few other archaeologists have started posting photos and other information about their research on facebook (e.g. MA dissertation). And the Universität Bern has a facebookpage for their training excavation in Buchs-Chammeren, canton Lucerne.

Quite some private archaeological and heritage firms and museums are present on social media, but most of their content is not research related and are limited to exhibition or event related items. To my amazement no Swiss archaeological university department or cantonal archaeological unit (who do most archaeological field and post-ex work) are present on social media, let alone maintain blogs. Especially the units are very active in public archaeology, but rely solely on the more traditional channels: the print media, TV and radio, as well as open days and guided tours. However, I have to say, when I worked for the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne, I was allowed to blog about my work with them here (see the posts here).

The reason for their absence on social media is, I believe, threefold: personal, resource related and the restrictive communication policies of the cantonal governments. To start with the personal, I have the impression that many Swiss archaeologists wrongly (!) do not consider themselves to be tech-savvy enough for using social media. Even the students I taught in two e-learning courses in the past 3 years had very little affinity with technology and social media, except for perhaps being on facebook. Most cantonal archaeological services, even in Switzerland, have limited resources and are struggling to do their core business and thus is an expansion of an, admittedly well-functioning, public archaeology strategy not a priority. Thirdly, the communication policies of the Cantons tends to be very restrictive and very much controlled by their communication departments. Hardly a written word leaves the offices without it having passed their scrutinising eyes. I even wonder if they would allow a blog or social media presence that is not maintained by them instead of the archaeologists themselves. But have a look at all the blogs that take part in this blogging carnival, people. There are so many things you can do with a blog and so many forms, aims, voices and audiences are to be had! Use it!

In the countries around us there are a few blogs from German archaeologists and I know of one Austrian blog. In France there are a few and in Italy there seems to be quite an active archaeological community on social media, esp. of young archaeologists. As an example, historians in the German-speaking world are much more active when it comes to blogging.

I like the way so many museums and other heritage institutions have embraced the possibilities of social media and the web and believe these are an essential tool for them these days. However, I love the personal blogs and social media efforts of individual researchers even more and would like to see more of these from non-English speaking countries (even if they would decide to write in English, as I have done). I believe – and with this I return to my first contribution to the blogging carnival – this could be increased if employers, whether university departments or cantonal units, would start to see the value of this work and would support it.

So, if there are among you readers out there archaeologists who blog or are active on social media but I have not discovered yet, I would love to hear from you. And if you are an archaeologist, a student, academic or in a unit and you would like to join us by starting a blog, a twitter account, pinterest page or anything else, but don’t know where to start, get in touch with any of us. We’re a friendly bunch, really!

The last words here, though, should be dedicated to thanking Doug for organising this Blogging Carnival and congratulating him on the success of it!

Sickles? You’re still wondering about sickles?

This post is dedicated to all you blogging archaeologists out there going through the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of blogging. But especially to John Lowe (of whereinthehellamI fame), whose fantastic playlist helped me write this (and the part of my thesis this blog post is based on).

Imagine a settlement 14 000 years ago. Image a few round buildings. Imagine a group of people living there, a few families maybe, living by hunting gazelle and birds and gathering, amongst other plants wild legumes and wild barley (Edwards 2007; Colledge 2001). Imagine somebody going about his or her business, collecting and hunting in the vicinity of the settlement and carrying with them all they needed. Imagine this tool set, carefully held in a bag or basket, left lying near the wall of a building, a house probably. Imagine it containing a few pebbles, some with traces that show they have been used; containing a flint core from which very handy bladelets can be made; containing some more bits and pieces, a bone haft, some gazelle foot bones (phalanges) and half moon shaped flint implements, perhaps arrow- or spearheads. And a sickle.

Yes, a sickle. There are more places to find out about sickles than just the Swiss Late Neolithic. The settlement described above is a Natufian site called Wadi Hammeh 27 (Edwards 2007). It lies in the Jordan Valley. The excavators called the building Structure 1 and the finds are part of assemblage 9. It is to be expected that this assemblage of finds was once held in a bag or basket made of some organic material, which had perished by the time it was excavated. More sickle fragments and bladelets were found at Wadi Hammeh 27, as well as at other contemporary sites. Other complete or fragments of sickles have been found in Kebara cave, at El Wad, Erq el Ahmar, Oum ez-Zoueitina, Eynan (Ain Mallaha), Hayonim and Nahal Oren (Bar-Yosef 1987; Garrod, 1932). Adhesives on blades from various sites show they were hafted, as the Wadi Hammeh 27 sickle, in a straight haft or in a curved hafts (Bar-Yosef 1987). In both the experimental studies by Goodale et al (2010) and by myself straight hafts were used. Mostly, however, it is only through use wear studies that we know Natufian bladelets were used as sickles

Wadi Hammen 27.

Wadi Hammen 27. Artefact assemblage 9. From Edwards 2007, fig.2

The fact that palaeobotanical research has shown that wild legumes and wild barley were collected by the people at Wadi Hammeh 27 and used sickles makes it interesting for my use wear studies on Late Mesolithic sites in the alpine foreland of central Europe, where cerealia Type pollen is known from off-site locations, but nothing much more is known about the details of the adoption of agriculture in the region (Behre  2009; Tinner et al 2009).

Sickle haft fragments for Mugharet-El Wad. From Garrod 1932

Sickle haft fragments for Mugharet-El Wad. From Garrod 1932

There are a few fascinating aspects to be noted about the sickle itself. The haft is made of goat of sheep horn core. And in it two slots are made that are filled with two rows of 5 Helwan bladelets each. One row is made of pale brown flint (Munsell 10 YR 8/2, apparently) and on a grey flint (10YR 8/1).

I think it also fascinating that the maker or owner of the sickle thought it somehow important to make the sickle look good. In fact, it appears that more sickles of the period  were decorated. Below a sickle from Nadal Heimar, which is decorated with a zick zack pattern. In fact, Goodale et al (2010) have shown that sickles of the somewhat later PPNA sites of Dhra’, Jordan, were used for an extended period of time. Sickles were clearly important for people living through the economic and socialchanges of the end of the last Late Glacial and the early Holocene. Yes sickles!


BAR-YOSEF, O. 1987. Direct and Indirect evidence for hafting in the Epi-Palaeolithic and Neolithic of the Southern Levant. In: STORDEUR, D. (ed.) La Main et l’Outil. Manches et emmanchements préhistoriques. Table Ronde C.N.R.S. tenue à lyon du 26 au 29 novembre 1984. Lyon: Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée Jean Pouilloux.

BEHRE, K. E. 2007. Evidence for Mesolithic agriculture in and around central Europe? Vegetation History and Archaebotany, 16, 203-219.

COLLEDGE, S. 2001. Plant exploitation on Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic sites in the Levant, Oxford.

Philip C. Edwards (2007). A 14 000 year-old hunter-gatherer’s toolkit Antiquity, 81 (314), 865-876

GARROD, D. A. E. 1932. A New Mesolithic Industry: The Natufian of Palestine. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 62, 257-269.

GOODALE, N., OTIS, H., ANDREFSKY, W., KUIJT, I., FINLAYSON, B. & BART, K. 2010. Sickle blade life-history and the transition to agriculture: an early Neolithic case study from Southwest Asia. Journal of Archaeological Science, 37, 1192-1201.

TINNER, W., NIELSEN, E. & LOTTER, A. F. 2007. Mesolithic agriculture in Switzerland? A critical review of the evidence. Quaternary Science Review, 26, 1416-1431.

Blogging Archaeology – Why I started, why I still blog and why I will keep blogging


Blogging Archaeology

I had seen his post about the SAA 2014 blogging in archaeology session and the archaeological blogging carnival and I thought: shame, interesting but no time. Then I received an email from Doug (thank you for organising this!) And it started to nag me. I could not stop thinking that it’s good to think about these issues once every while. And it nagged and it nagged. Until yesterday morning in the shower the post was writing itself in my head. Bloggers unite and join #blogarch! I will and I will enjoy reading why other archaeological bloggers are blogging. Besides, what better to do on a snowy winter’s morning than blog about archaeology?

How does it work: Each month leading up to the SAA he will post a question. If you would like to answer this question, you blog about it, as will hopefully do a lot of other archaeology bloggers.

Why do I blog?

It all started about six years ago. I was not satisfied with the possibilities my department’s website gave me in developing my on-line presence. Over a few beers with my friend Ben (from the fantastic Version1) we discussed the possibilities and we came to the conclusions, it had to be a blog. So, I went on-line and discovered that there was a small community of blogging archaeologists, mostly young researchers and almost all in the English speaking world. It felt quite exciting to join them. So, I started hazelnut_relations and initially I set it up mostly as an online profile.

Soon it dawned on me this wordpress blog thing allowed me not only to build my own online profile, but that really it is a platform I could write on, about anything I wanted to write about! Ha! I liked writing and thought it might be good practice, if not a bit scary to do so in public. I was going to write about anything in archaeology I was interested in, whether Swiss archaeology, interesting bits of archaeological news, publications, my lost love The Palaeolithic, and my own research of course. My then unfunded PhD research progressed only ever so slowly while I was working pretty much full-time in archaeological services. Slowly, I found my niche in Swiss Archaeology, though. Over time I also felt I was finding my voice and was having more and more fun blogging.

Why am I still blogging?

I don’t think I have to explain to you how important it is that we, archaeologists, share our work with others. As a PhD student I have no budget for this, but I don’ need to: the blog is free and allows me to share my work and what we are finding out about our past, whether it is my PhD research or other projects I am involved in.

Secondly, blogging allows me to share this, not only with the general public, but also with fellow archaeologists near and far, with my friends and family and with the stakeholders in my project. This latter point has become more important since I became part of a larger project and we got funding for our project in October 2012 and the number of stakeholders subsequently increased significantly (but do you read this blog at all, stakeholders?). Thirdly, this public funding also increases our obligation to communicate our work.

The funding has had an influence on my blogging in yet another way: It meant I am now working full-time on my PhD and only do a few small research projects on the side, allowing me to specialise. Regular readers know that these days I focus mostly on alpine archaeology and on microscopic use wear analysis of Late Mesolithic chipped stone artefacts. As far as I am aware I am the only blogging Swiss archaeology PhD student. And in general, only a few Swiss archaeologists are professionally active on social media. A shame, I think (JOIN ME!), as, really, although I am not originally from Switzerland, I am quite proud of the work that we do here and I am determined to brag about it!

Point five: The Mesolithic is a fascinating part of human history. Be honest, who can resist being intrigued by the changes taking places during the early Holocene, as the ice retreated and new wonderful ideas and foods and knowledge arrived in our parts of the world? So, as a colleague once wrote to me: “Long Live The Mesolithic!

Why do you blog and still blog? I think to answer that you have to also answer the question: who you write for? However, the question of audience is particular tricky in my case.

I work in country with four official languages and working and living in regions that are officially bilingual, doesn’t make it easier. Working here it is also impossible not to connect with the German, French and Italian speaking regions only a stone’s throw away. Moreover, one of my supervisors is from the UK and the world of use wear analysis is quite international. In the end I decided on writing in English, but even after almost six years I am not completely sure about this decision. On the one side, would you be reading this had I written this in German or French? On the other hand, I fear I now exclude some of the local general public. So, who do I write for?

Actually, although I am truly grateful for and – to be honest – really quite flattered by the small audience I have out there and I really hope you enjoy coming by here once every while (let me know who you are sometime!), I think I mostly write for myself. The writing really is good practice and sometimes writing for my blog about issues I am dealing with in my research helps me thinking them through. It forces me to think clearly and more honestly. It is a bit like a mental purification. Sometimes, I even start writing a blog post that then does not even make it onto the blog and turns into part of my thesis or an article. By now, I see this blog as an intregral part of my PhD and professional identity.

So, that is why I blog and am still blogging and will keep blogging for a while.

P.S. But I would not mind if blogging, or science communication in general, also got some sort of support from my department, faculty or university. (If only it would qualify for an ECTS point. I need 12 for my PhD, thank you very much.)

Spurenleser – use wear analyses animation

Arte TV has produced a lovely series of short informative animated films about archaeological specialists. And one is about use wear analyses!

Archäeologie Experte – Spurenleser. Arte.tv

If your  German is a bit rusty, there is also a French version (le tracéologue). And you might want to take the opportunity to procrastinate a bit more and watch all of them! Finally find out about what these palynologists and ceramic specialists and geomorphologists really d0.

Still from Spurenleser - Archäologie Experte. Arte TV

Still from Spurenleser – Archäologie Experte. Arte TV

The history of lithic use wear analysis II – Qu’était l’objet?

The fragmentary nature of many archaeological finds can make our work challenging. The anaerobic conditions of the Neolithic and Bronze Age lake side sites of peri-alpine Europe, however, can provide some very welcome insights into the organic part of prehistoric tool kits. It is no surprise that the almost completely preserved sickle from Solferino inspired French archaeologist André Vayson de Pradenne (1919) to address the still unresolved issues of the use of certain lithic artefacts and the polish that can be seen on them.

This sickle was found some time before Vayson saw it in peat bogs just south of the Lake of Garda. It consisted of a number flint blades that fitted seamlessly next to each other in a groove in a wooden haft. They were glued in with a smooth mastic and protruded ca. 12mm from the haft. The form would suggest use as a knife or saw would be impossible. Vayson commenced on a large comparative study of all known sickle and sickle like artefacts from Europe and the Near East. And although he does not describe them elaborately, he does some experiments, trying to work wood and grasses with sickle like flint tools. He come to the conclusion that the artefacts must have been used as sickles, but also argued that wood as well as grasses can produce polish.

Modern serrated flake with broad band of lustre experimentally produced by cutting straw (x2). From Curwen 1930.

Modern serrated flake with broad band of lustre experimentally produced by cutting straw (x2). From Curwen 1930.

British surgeon and archaeologist E. C. Curwen shows much respect for Vayson’s work, whose 1919 paper he summarises elaborately in English in his article in Antiquity (Curwen, 1930). He is, however, not satisfied with Vayson’s results and does more experiments from which he concludes that working grasses and woods each produces distinctive kinds of polish.

When Dorothy Garrod finds sickle blades set in bone handles with polish from Natufian layers in Palestine, this raises new questions about the timing and process of the start of cereal domestication in the Near East. René Neuville discusses the issue in a 1934 paper, building on Vayson’s work and criticizing part of Curwen’s 1930 conclusions (Neuville, 1934). As a result Curwen decides to do more experiments in order to finally get to the bottom of what causes polishes and to address the domestication questions (Curwen, 1935).

Aiming to reproduce more realistic durations of tool use, Curwen devises a mechanical experiment. He sets a number of experimental artefacts made from two kinds of flint into an electric lathe and as such they were used to `work´ bone, oak wood and compressed straw with (30 minutes each; straw 3500 rotations/minute, bone and wood 2500). The results supported the view that lustre and its development is not just the result of the intensity of use, but also conditioned by the worked material. In the case of these sickles Curwen concluded that the worked material was probably a siliceous plant material of “a yielding nature”. It was thus established that the type of tool, the worked material, the length of use as well as the kind of use all influence the build-up of polish. With this Spurrell, Vayson, Neuville and Curwen had set the parameters for most use wear studies to this date.

It is fascinating to see the photographs Curwen used in both, otherwise relatively sparsely illustrated, 1930 and 1935 publications to illustrate his findings. Although his photos are not microscopic (scale 2:1 and 2½:1), their aesthetics foreshadow those of the microscopic photography of use wear traces on lithic artefacts that have become the norm during the past sixty years or so. The photography used by most presenters at the Usewear2012 conference last September still stuck to these aesthetics, which can be described as a visual vocabulary. Only recently, really with the appearance of digital photography and SEM-technology, do we see a widening of this visual vocabulary within the discipline of use wear analysis.

Lastly, Curwen’s use of mechanic experiments seem to have been rather forwards looking. It has not become the norm in experimental archaeology, neither in use wear analyses, but it might have a future after all. The mechanical experiments allowed Curwen to reproduce intense artefact use with each of the experimental artefacts and enabled him control the parameters of his study and to make direct comparisons between the polish developed on each tool. In a study by Iovita et al (Iovita et al. In Press) mechanised experiments are used to control the experiments parameters and enable reproducibility. Mechanised experiments might also allow for larger reference samples for use wear studies.

Microscopy has not entered the discipline of lithic use wear studies in the 1930’s yet. Researchers had been able to define the factors causing polish and the discipline’s visual repertoire had been established by a small group of researchers working across Europa and the Near East engaged in an international debate, doing experiments and willing to try new methods and to learn from each other.


CURWEN, E. C. 1930. Prehistoric Flint Sickles Antiquity, 4, 179-188.

CURWEN, E. C. 1935. Agriculture and the Flint Sickle in Palestine. Antiquity, 9, 62-66.

IOVITA, R., SCHÖNEKEß, H., GAUDZINSKI-WINDHEUSER, S. & JÄGER, F. In Press, Projectile impact fractures and launching mechanisms: results of a controlled ballistic experiment using replica Levallois points. Journal of Archaeological Science.

NEUVILLE, R. 1934. Les débuts de l’agriculture et la faucille préhistorique en Palestine, Jerusalem.

VAYSON DE PRADENNE, A. 1919. Faucille préhistorique de Solférino. L’Anthropologie, XXIX, 393-422.

The history of lithic use wear analysis – the unusual suspects

Spurrell, Vayson, Flinders Petrie and Curwen. Those are perhaps not the first names that come to mind, when thinking of the beginnings of lithic use wear analysis. That would probably be Semenov and Keeley.

As the continuing winter weather is not ideal for working on the experimental work for my PhD, I decided to intensify my research on the history of use wear analysis and its methodology as well as to work on a databank. So while it is snowing outside and the garden where I am to do the experiments is still the domain of a few hardy birds and some brave crocuses, I have time to write about the earliest attempts archaeologists made at determining the use of chipped stone artefacts.

In 1889-90 M. Flinders Petrie finds “a sickle having a compound armature” in Kahun, Egypt (Flinders Petrie 1891, Spurrell 1891, 1892). These denticulated flint blades had been known for a few decades from various sites and were assumed to be saws. However, Flinders Petrie’s finds included an almost complete wooden sickle in which such a blade was still hafted, using a cement consisting of “black Nile mud and gum” (Spurrell 1892). Further blades were found in the immediate vicinity of the sickle and would have formed the remainder of the tool. These artefacts were to leave a 40 year long trace of debate amongst archaeologists. To a certain extend it even continues to this day. It started when Flinders Petrie passed the artefacts on to Flaxman Charles John Spurrell.

What struck me most is that Spurrell uses many of the major analytical methods and evidence applied by use-wear and lithic specialists today. He studies the artefact’s morphology and compares the Kahun sickle as well as the individual blades to those from other prehistoric sites across the Near East and Europe. Amongst these are sickles found by Jakob Heierli at Vinelz, a lakeside village on the Lake Biel/Bienne, here in Switzerland. Interesting is also his discussion of the Egyptian pictorial evidence of the use of these sickles.

Besides the morphology it is, of course, the polish visible along the edge of the blades, that gets Spurrell’s attention. Similar polish was already known from artefacts from other Near Eastern and European sites. However, the origin of this polish is unknown at the time. One archaeologist, for example, suggests it is a patina which builds after excavation in the museums where they are stored. Like many of his European contemporaries, Spurrell decides to do imitative experiments. He notices the adequate angle of the sickle handle, the effectiveness of the tools and his experiments confirm the prehistoric depictions of sickle use. But his experiments are mostly concerned with the polish. To be able to recreate the polish he tries sawing bone, wet and dry wood and horn, but without results. Cutting ripe straw, however, does produce the polish. Furthermore, the polish distribution suggests the working of a relatively soft and pliable material. He concludes that it is the organic silica in grasses or cereal stems causing the polish, thus confirming the direct archaeological evidence. However, the archaeological community of the time was not yet ready to accept Spurrell’s results.

Spurrell does not write about using a microscope as part of his analyses and it seems that not even during the nineteen thirties, when E. C. Curwen enters in a debate with Francoise Vayson, microscopic use wear studies are applied. The study of the use of lithic artefacts does get raised to another level, though. If the weather stays like this I will be writing about that here soon.


Spurrell, F. C. J., 1892, Notes on early sickles, in The archaeological journal 49, p.53-69

Spurrell, F. C. J., 1891, The stone implements of Kahun, in Flinders Petrie, Illahun, Kahun and Gurob. 1889-1890, London, David Nutt, pp. 51-56

Flinders Petrie, W. M. 1891, Illahun, Kahun and Gurob. 1889-1890, London, David Nutt

Lab I: getting to know my tools

digital microscope

A big day today. While the outside world is covered in deep fresh snow, I started working in a warm lab in at the University of Fribourg, Geosciences today, getting to know my equipement. I will be mostly using this digital microscope for the lithic use wear analyses for my PhD research. It makes fantastic images with a good depth of field. It would even make 3D images, but I am not sure yet if the quality of these is sufficient for my purposes. In any case, it is very exciting to get started.

Photograhpy – First adventures with an Agfa Synchro Box

My first camera was red with a big separate flash, 35mm of course. As an archaeologist I have used a large array of cameras over the years. They range from normal analogue 35mm SLRs and very early digital cameras (I hardly dare to think about the quality of those photographs!) to high-end DSLR’s. On the site I’m working now we even use a  120mm film Hasselblad!

Most archaeologists seem to have some affinity with photography. And I guess that is true of me as well. It was thus fun to find this AGFA Synchro Box (produced from 1951-1957) in a box in my parent’s house. It must be the very camera with which those little childhood photographs of my Father and his family were made.

So, we cleaned it and we tried a film. It is truly amazing how simple these boxes are! The camera takes a bit of getting used to, though. It is quite tricky to use the viewfinder and determine what will actually be on the photo. Photos 1 & 2 are the results of that first film. The rest come from the second attempt.

Not very happy with the processing of Photos 1 & 2: Ilford Delta 400 Pro, b & w processing, the format of the prints is wrong (lost some at the short sides) and colour printing. Photos 3, 4 & 5 are better (Ilford FP4 plus, b & w processing and printing) even though they are just contact prints. (I then scanned all of them to be able to post them here.)

There is a colour film in the Synchro Box now and I am curious to see the results of that.

Unterseen II: the archaeology of a 19th Century road surface – Strassenarchäologie des 19. Jh.s

English text below.

Manchmal bleibt es bis lange nach der Ausgrabung noch ungewiss was Du ausgegraben hast, manchmal ist es sofort klar. Dies war letzte Woche der Fall. Auf der Ausgrabung in Unterseen legten wir zwei alte Strassenpflästerungen frei.

Neben der Stadthauslaube, direkt unter dem heutigen Strassenpflaster dokumentierten wir einen letzten Rest einer Pflästerung, die aus in Mörtel gesetzten Flusskiesel bestand. Das zweite Stück eines Kopfsteinpflasters dürfte älter sein, wurde aber direkt unter dem modernen Teerbelag gefunden. Auf seiner Unterseite waren selbst die Abdrücke der Steine sichtbar.

Vielen Passanten fiel die gut verständliche und wunderschön erhaltene Pflästerung auf und weckte ihr Interesse, sogar mehr als die daneben liegenden mittelalterlichen Mauern. Vielleicht auch weil ihre Urgrosseltern noch darauf spaziert sind?

Zwei Reihen aus grossen Quadersteinen, die tief in die darunterliegende ältere Oberfläche einer Naturstrasse gesetzt worden waren, begrenzen einen ca. 1 m breiten Streifen Flusskiesel. Die etwas grösser als faustgrossen Steine waren nur in lockere Sand gesetzt worden, bilden aber trotzdem eine bemerkenswert feste Oberfläche. Regula Glatz wertet im Moment ältere Grabungen des ADB in Unterseen aus. Sie wies mich auf ein Büchlein hin, in dem ich dieses Bild von 1819 fand. Es zeigt nicht nur das Stadthaus kurz nach der Umbau von 1818, sondern auch eine Bollensteinpflästerung in der Unteren Gasse: vier schmale und ein breiteren Streifen Pflästerung, die durch Quadersteinreihen voneinander getrennt waren.

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Sometimes you do not know what you are excavating until long after you are finished on site. Sometimes, however, you know it all too well. This was the case a few weeks back on our Unterseen excavation when we uncovered an old street surface. It was the second bit we found.

We discovered a first section directly below the present road surface against the old Stadthaus (town hall). A small area covered with river pebbles set on their sides in mortar. The second, probably older, section was also found directly underneath the modern surface. Its stones’ impression in the bottom of the tar covering them.

Many passers-by commented on it. The beautifully preserved street on which some of their great grandparents might have walked still was instantly recognisable as such and grabbed people’s attention. Even more so than the walls in other parts of the excavation.

Two rows of stones set deep into the compacted, older road surface below frame a ca. 1 m wide stretch of pebbles. Although these slightly larger than fist sized pebbles were only set in loose sand, they formed an incredibly stable road surface. Regula Glatz is doing post-excavation work on earlier excavations in Unterseen. She showed me a booklet with paintings and etchings of Unterseen, mostly dating to the 18th and 19th C. And yes, the one depicted here shows the Stadthaus, just after its 1819 renovation with a pebbled road surface in front of it. Four narrow and one wider stretches of pebbles, separated by rows of large rectangular stones.

Unterseen I – temps de repos

Lunch break at the excavation in Unterseen. Archaeological Service Canton Berne, Switzerland)

Lunch break at the excavation. Archaeological rescue excavation of medieval building remains in the small city of Unterseen by the Archäologische Dienst des Kt. Bern (Archaeological Service of the Canton Berne, Switzerland)

Dingos, lynxes, stone tools and the wilderness downtown

After almost two years, I’ll be visiting my hometown again soon. I live and work as an archaeologists in a country in Central Europe where I did not grow up. I was reading John Bradley’sWhen a stone tool is a dingo: Country and relatedness in Australian Aboriginal notions of landscape” the other day. Bradley manages to illustrate and summarize some important points about how past (and present) societies might understand their surroundings much less compartmentalized as we in western societies of the 21st C might do. It made me wonder if the concept of a lithic tool being a dingo can be translated to the (peri-)alpine Central European Mesolithic. Could a stone tool be a lynx instead?

However, intuitively the first thing that came to mind reading about such a complete/holistic worldview did not concern the Mesolithic, but my own life. More than a third of my life I have now spend away from where I grew up. Those ca. 13 years were spend in 6 cities on two continents. All of these cities have grown dear to me, but none of them I know as well as the city I spend my younger years in.

A. Deusser - Arcen von Westen (Lottum, von Arcen aus gesehen, mit Bodennebel, Abendlandschaft an der Maas, Lottum, 1918 - 1924)

A. Deusser - Arcen von Westen (Lottum, von Arcen aus gesehen, mit Bodennebel, Abendlandschaft an der Maas, Lottum, 1918 - 1924.)
Deusser moved to the region I grew up in, during the 1910s-1920s, living and painting in Arcen.

One of the band members of Arcade Fire went back to the neighbourhood he grew up in and wrote the song “We used to wait” about this. Chris Milk and a team from Google made the interactive video The wilderness downtown around it, taking you back to YOUR youth. It is an amazing experience and shows what is possible with HTML5. It’s worth a try (best with google chrome).

My understanding and knowledge of the part of Europe where I spend the first 19 years (and a few more later on) of my life goes back at least four generations, roughly 120 years. It is probably the most in depth and intense knowledge and understanding I will ever have of any part of the world. I guess this will be true for most if not all people who pack up their things and go and live in a new part of the world. Perhaps I will look back at this post in 20 years and think how wrong I was. But maybe archaeologists, dealing with the material and immaterial remains of the past (and present?) in our surroundings find it easier than many others to find stone-tool-dingos – or lynxes – in their newly adapted homes.

 Bradley, J., 2008, When a stone tool is a dingo: Country and relatedness in Australian Aboriginal notions of landscape, in David, B. & Thomas, J. (eds), Handbook of Landscape Archaeology. Left Coast Press

Experimental archaeology in a museum – an exhibition review

«Savoir-faire – Mit Kopf und Hand, die experimentelle Archäologie erzählt»
Museum Schwab – 28.05.2011 -26.02.2012

A man with a long grey ponytail, dressed in yellowish leather clothes assembles a stone axe. A little later we see him stalk through the forest with a hafted stone axe in hand, looking for a victim. After a while he finds an average sized, living tree. Within a few minutes he has the tree down.
You wonder why he has to chop down a living, healthy tree. But that is not the main point here. This stereotypical scene of experimental archaeology is shown on a big screen in the entrance hall of the Museum Schwab in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. This small archaeological museum shows a small selection of excellent finds from the rich archaeology of the region of the Lake of Biel.

Museum Schwab. Biel, Schweiz

Museum Schwab. Biel, Switzerland

The ground floor, however, is reserved for temporary exhibitions. Until Feb. 26th 2012 one can still visit the exhibition «Savoir-Faire», on experimental archaeology. So what does the exhibition show us? I believe the film scenes I described above are a little unfortunate. Throughout the exhibition one does not get to see many experimental archaeologists working, neither in photos not in film. To then start with such a stereotype, which also probably is not true for many exp. archaeologists, is a shame. Especially, as it seems that the rest of the exhibition and also the accompanying booklet tries to give us a very different impression. L. Marquis, the museum’s director, writes in the introduction of the exhibition booklet: “Experimental archaeology asks, using a practical method, about the function and production methods of archaeological finds, asks about the `how´.” (my trans.)

The first half of the exhibition is very hands-on. On a number of low tables examples of materials used to produce various archaeological artefact categories are presented: wooden throwing sticks and spears, pottery, bows and arrows, chipped stone artefacts and polished stone artefacts etc. Considering the location of the Museum within the Three-lake –region, it is not surprising many examples come from the archaeology of the lake side villages. The material samples can all be handled. Each category is accompanied by a leaflet in which the production of the artefact category is described and an example is given of how experimental archaeology has contributed to our understanding of them. Furthermore, examples of each of the artefact categories are presented in nearby a glass case. There is no definite order in which to view the small exhibition and that is fine, really. Especially, if there are many visitors it might be nice to be able to manoeuvre freely around the room. The design is very clean and easily `read´. The visitor is not bombarded with images and text and the designers worked with few colours.

A second room is largely taken up by two `tableaux vivant´. Continue reading


Another update on the Marden Henge long-tailed oblique arrowheads. H. Anderson-Whymark has made a great attempt on reproducing the arrowhead. He notes the importance of the thinness of the blank and the amount of time it took to produce this … Continue reading


Just a quick update. In a new piece in Past 68, Bishop etal report on the Neolihtic ripple flaked arowheads from Marden Henge which I mentioned before in a article on the aesthethics of lithics. An artefact similar to the … Continue reading

St.Ursanne: middle ages and hazelnuts

There has to be some diversion in the life of a phd student. So on a quiet rainy Sunday a few friends suggested a visit to St. Ursanne, Switzerland. (Thanks for a great day L., Chr. & R.!). I have been living very close to the Jura Mountains for a number of years now, but never actually made it there. It was starting to gain mythical proportions in my mind. So, time for some exploration. The whole day I had a nagging feeling that I should know St. Ursanne, that it was known for something else, besides from being a well preserved town and the medieval monastery.

St. Ursanne, from Kunstführer durch die Schweiz 3 (1982)

St. Ursanne lies in the remote but beautiful valley of the Doubs. You enter the town through one of its 3 towers. The town has bags of charm and it is not surprising that it is rather touristy. At its centre lies the church and monastery of Saint Ursanne. Its predecessor was founded ca. 635 AD over the grave of St. Ursinicus, an irish monk and student and companion of St. Columban. The present church and monastic buildings dates mostly to early 13th C AD and is stylistically truly on the transition of the romanesque to the gothic. The cloister dates to the 14th C AD. The southern entrance is one of the best pieces of romanesque sculpture in Switzerland. Beautiful, but a little mad is the baroque choir. In the lapidarium one walks over a glass floor under which lie scores of those fascinating early medieval trapezoid sarcophagi made of the local chalkstone.

Cloister, St. Ursanne

Sometime this week it finally dawned on me: the Abri Les Gripons lies just northwest of St. Ursanne! I cannot blame the others for not knowing of this site. Although all four of us were trained archaeologists, none of the other have much to do with the Mesolithic. But I should have remembered. The site was excavated in 1986 – 1989 (Pousaz 1991; see also Nielsen 2009) and is mostly known for its Early Mesolithic horizon. Burned earth and charcoal indicate hearths. Finds include mostly calcinated bones and flint artefacts.

My interest is in the Late Mesolithic horizon, though. Continue reading

The «6. Interregionales Silex Symposium» – an interregional/-national early summer’s evening in Basel

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of taking part in the highly informal „6. Interregionale Silex Symposium” in Basel. The fabulous weather allowed for an early May bbq and beer gathering, followed by a stimulating evening of flinty-talk.

Acheulean Implements, Kent UK

Acheulean Implements, Kent UK

D. Schuhmann (Germany) started us off with some musings on the Yabrudien in Hummal other sites in Syria. H. Flück (Fricktal), really a Romanist, took a brave step standing up in front of a room full of hard-core prehistorians and introduced us to the fabulously beautiful knapping work of the Mayas. M. Bolliger (Fricktal) subsequently read out a highly informative alphabetic list of 1000 interesting rawmaterial sites in Europe. We will never again be lost for ideas on what to do when on holidays!

The break was spent with more interregional international beer (Efes, Kronenbourg and Bittburger; thanks to the little Turkish shop next door’s tendency to promote cosmopolitism) outside again and used for much valueless networking, the most useful kind.

Flint nodule

Flint nodule; ©Arco Ardon, Flickr

I (Limburg) had the honour to start the second block and gave the audience my take on Kohn & Mithens (Antiquity 1999) so called Sexy Handaxe Theory. D. Brönnimann (Baselländer) then proceeded to succinctly explain us the many things we can not learn from flint thin sections. Dr. R. Jagher (Basel) finished off the evening by giving us a slightly worrying insight into the biology and toxicology of the Tuber silexorum (Common Flint nodule) from a Baseller point of view. After which we just managed to get the last train home (although there are rumours that a few locked themselves in the building and stayed a bit longer.)

Thanks everyone for a good evening!


Quite a while ago again, I wrote a few words on the A. Sediba finds. The fossils have been controversially described as the ancestors of Homo. Now a number of specialists have met at two occasions and discussed the fossils. … Continue reading

Blogging Archaeology 1 to 5 and VIARCH – when an archaeologist temporarily ceases to be an archaeologist

Many archaeologists identify themselves rather strongly with their profession and I guess I stand accused. However, even archaeologists can’t always be archaeologist. I was being distracted from archaeology for a while working on our house. It’s about finished now and we’ve moved in. As I returned to the world I noticed I have missed two big events in archaeological blogging and visualisation: Okay, I knew I sadly sadly would not be able to make it to the VIARCH-Conference. The Archaeological Eye has more infos on this.

Secondly, as a prequel to the SAA conference session on blogging archaeology, Colleen Morgan of Middle Savagery, held a blog-carnival. For four weeks, she each week posted a question which was answered by various archaeological bloggers on their blogs. These she collected and synergised. A shame I missed it. However, I think it was a fantastic effort and it’s great to see such a self confident and reflective bunch of blogging archaeologists.

Much of my thoughts were voiced by the many contributors, so I’ll only highlight a few issues here and give a Swiss/continental European perspective on some. (Better late then never!) That actually brings me to the first point. It seems there are not many non-English language archaeology blogs around, or they are not well integrated with the English language bloggers. In fact, I know that there are only very few German language archaeology blogs. And I guess, I once again stand accused as I decided to blog in English and not in German (or any of the other Swiss languages or my native language). It would be great if the interaction could become more international.

The questions C. Morgan asked were: 1.) What is the place of this conversation within academic, professional, and public discourse? Simply put, what can the short form do for archaeology? 2.) on the risk of blogging archaeology. What does one share, what not? 3.) are we really changing opinions or moving the field forward? Who is your audience and how to you interact with this audience? What do you want out of interactivity by means of blogging about archaeology? 4.) and lasty she asked how people feel about publishing the blog-carnival. Continue reading

EXPO¦ARCH¦DISS digitally

A good year ago, B. Dubosson, H. Flück and I started EXPO¦ARCH¦DISS, an exhibition of posters of PhD projects concerning Swiss archaeology or by Swiss archaeologists. The posters have been exhibited at the yearly meetings of the societies of prehistoric, roman, medieval and classical archaeology in Switzerland in 2010. Now the posters are also available digitally on the new EXPO¦ARCH¦DISS-website!

We are interested to hear from you what you think of EXPO¦ARCH¦DISS and invite all phd candidates who work on a Swiss archaeological topic to send in a poster.

You can find all information on the website (the French version is in the making).

The Aesthetics of Lithics – Marden Henge and Late Mesolithic Switzerland

I have great respect for the prehistoric flintworkers that produced the extraordinary pieces of craftsmanship that stand out from the usual crowd of artefacts and debitage we archaeologists mostly deal with. However, I do not count myself amongst the lithics fans who can dote on these special artefacts for hours. When I saw the picture of these ripple-flaked oblique arrowheads, though, it struck me how much they differ from the late Mesolithic artefacts from Central Europe that I am working with.

Ripple Flaked Arrowheads, Marden Henge. from Leary etal 2010, PAST 66

Ripple Flaked Arrowheads, Marden Henge. from Leary etal 2010, PAST 66

Let me introduce the mentioned arrowheads briefly. First, they are stunning and amazing pieces of craftsmanship! They were found during excavations by English Heritage at Marden Henge, southern England. Marden Henge dates to the Late Neolithic, ca. 2500 BC and lies between Avebury and Stonehenge. Leary, Field and Russell (2010) briefly report on the fieldwork in Past 66. The arrowheads came from a trench in which a remarkably well preserved building was discovered. More on Marden Henge and the fieldwork can also be found on these sites: The BBC site shows a short video and The Guardian website has an article and a small interactive feature. Digital Digging made this nice little overlay video.

Back to the lithics. Leary, Field and Russell (2010, p. 16) write:

“Two exquisitely crafted ripple-flaked oblique flint arrowheads were also recovered from this trench, but with broken tips and one missing barb each. However, if an intriguing broken fragment of flint from another part of the site is correctly interpreted, these arrowheads may have once sported grossly elongated barbs on one side. This long and narrow surface-flaked ‘barb’ fragment closely matches the character and width of the stubs on the arrowheads – so much so that it almost refits with one of them. Such an overstated feature places the artefact well beyond the realms of practicality, and must have been the ultimate show-off item. As far as we know, nothing similar exists in Britain – and even the barbs on elaborate continental barbed and tanged arrowheads are small by comparison. We lay a challenge here at the feet of all flint knappers out there to try to recreate a similar arrowhead and barb.”

What struck me was how different they are from the finest, most sophisticated artefacts from the Central European Late Mesolithic. And yes, I do realise artefacts from different periods and different parts of the world are being compared. It is also not my aim to do a typological comparison, but to take a moment to look at some of the wonderful things we – as archaeologists – have the privilige to work with, to contemplate how a skill can be used in such varied ways, producing artefacts withi such different functions and meanings.

Late Mesolithic Trapezes from Switzerland

To me the small trapezes are the most aesthetically beautiful chipped stone tools from Late Mesolithic Switzerland. These, however, can be assumed to have been practical tools, used and hafted as arrowheads, unlike the “ultimate show-of items from Marden Henge”. And unlike the Marden arrowheads, their beauty lies in their simplicity, their elegance, their practicality. With this technique many highly efficient arrowheads (or other tools) can be produced from relatively small pieces of raw-material (if need be raw-material of lesser quality). They can be routinely made and replaced. There is no reason to suppose they were show-off items, in fact when hafted you would hardly have seen much of them.

late mesolithic trapeze, Central Switzerland

late mesolithic trapeze, Central Switzerland (Foto ProSpect)

That almost seems to be a shame with e.g. trapezes like this one, made of rock crystal (from a site in the Central Swiss Alps). Its beauty, it seems, is in the design, and not in an ostentatious display of skill and luxury as in the Marden Henge arrowheads.

Update here!

Leary, J.,  Field, D.  and Russell, M., 2010, Marvels at Marden Henge, in PAST 66, p. 14-16

Four Stone Hearth Tea-Party and a weekly anthro round-up

Krystal at Anthropology in Practice invites to the 102nd Four Stone Hearth Tea-Party.

It’s a good and very wide selection this time. So, head over there.

And also at Neuroanthropology the Wednesday round-up has some fascinating links as well!

Keep up the good work, all of you!

Alpine Archaeology-Blog, e-learning and archaeological methods and techniques

From today the Alpine Archaeology-Blog is up and running. The Department of Pre- and Protohistory of the University of Zürich, Switzerland has got a long history in teaching and researching the archaeology of mountainous areas. There are e.g. the Leventina Project (Della Casa, in press, Hess et al., 2010) and the projects in the Andes by my collaegues M. Kolb-Godoy Allende and P. Fux (Fux, 2007) and colleagues. A current example is the “Rückwege” project in the Silvretta (Reitmaier, 2009, Reitmaier, 2010, Reitmaier and Walser, 2008).

During the 2010 autumn semester almost all taught courses will be solely devoted to Alpine Archaeology. As part of this alpine semester I will be teaching an e-learning course on the methods and techniques of archaeological research in alpine environments. To be able to enhance not only this course, but the learning and teaching experience throughout the department (for lecturers and students alike) we decided to start a blog. All students and teaching personal are encouraged to use this blog to exchange knowledge, document their work and have fun posting and reading the blog.

Both the blog and the e-learning course will be an experiment in how to integrate digital media into teaching. Of course, we are not the first to do this. Continue reading

Open Day / Journées Portes Ouvertes et Découverte d’une fouille préhistorique – Site d’Arconciel/La Souche

From the excavators of Arconciel/La Souche (SAEF):

Dimanche 5 septembre 2010 – Entre 10 et 16 heures.Non loin de l’abbaye d’Hauterive, les falaises de la Sarine abritent un habitat du Mésolithique.

Sis sur le domaine de l’abbaye cistercienne d’Hauterive, l’abri naturel d’Arconciel/La Souche se trouve au cœur des magnifiques gorges de la Sarine, à six kilomètres en amont de la ville de Fribourg. Largement ouvert au sud-ouest, il offre protection, ensoleillement, surface habitable conséquente et accessibilité. A ce titre, il est considéré comme l’un des plus beaux exemples d’habitat de pied de falaise de notre région, un type de sites qui fut particulièrement apprécié par les derniers groupes de chasseurs-cueilleurs du Mésolithique (9700-5000 av. J.-C.).

Estimé dès sa découverte comme l’un des plus hauts lieux de la Préhistoire fribourgeoise du fait de son très bon état de conservation, de sa stratigraphie de plus de trois mètres et de la richesse du matériel mis au jour (près de 15 000 artefacts en roches siliceuses, éléments de parures et plus de 150 000 restes fauniques), mais menacé par l’érosion, l’abri d’Arconciel/La Souche fait l’objet depuis 2003 d’une fouille de sauvetage qui sert également de chantier-école à plusieurs Universités.
Continue reading

interpreting woodhenge-stonehenge rivalry

So archaeologists from the UK & Austria believe to have found ‘the find‘: a woodhenge (/barrow?) near Stonehenge. Illustrator Mike Frodsham does a nice tongue-in-cheek interpretation job : henge jealousy and an almost cave painting.

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology in Switzerland – where we stand now

As usual, the 2010 Jahrbuch Archäologie Schweiz vol. 93 includes a list of newly discovered and excavated sites. It is no surprise that the number of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites discovered or investigated in 2009 is relatively low in comparison to the number of sites from most later prehistoric, roman and medieval periods. The figure below comes from Siegmund’s 2008 publication in the Jahrbuch der Archäologie Schweiz 2008, vol. 91.


Siegmund 2008 Abb. 9, p. 95. Do not be confused by the typos in the Roman and Medieval numbers: the correct ones are 1630 & 1288.

It clearly shows the chronological distribution of the newly recorded or excavated sites in Switzerland during the period 1987 – 2006. It is also noted by Siegmund, that especially concerning the Mesolithic, Germany and France show even worse records (although for the alpine areas this might not been true; see below). Also, about a third of the Mesolithic sites mentioned in the above table are recorded in only one Canton: Fribourg.

Below the numbers of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites, and as a comparison the Bronze Age sites, recorded in 2008 & 2009. It shows ten sites mentioned in 2008 of which five were new discoveries and nine sites mentioned in 2009 of which four were new discoveries, against seventeen and forty-three sites dating to the Bronze Age.

Continue reading

Grabung Parkhaus Opéra, Zürich

In Zürich, Switzerland the excavation of the Phalbausiedlung, or lake side village, in front of the Opernhaus has started. It is right next to the excavation Mozart-Strasse, that some might know. Various waterlogged occupation layers dating to the Horgen period (late fourth millenium BC), the Early and Late Bronze Age can be expected.

The paper Tages Anzeiger publishes a weekly diary by fieldmanager Niels Bleicher. It also appears on the website of the city of Zürich.

Radiolarite and spring in the Fribourger Prealps

A number of raw materials were used for the production of chipped stone artefacts at the site of Arconciel/La Souche, Kt. Fribourg, Switzerland. Some of you might already know that I am doing a use wear analysis of the finds from the Late and Final Mesolithic abri for my PhD.

Of course, I am curious to see these places and the sources of the raw material of the archaeological artefacts. And it is spring! Here on the Swiss plateau the snow is gone, and in the Alps much has already melted as well. So, with a trusted companion I set out on an expedition to go and find the radiolarite outcrops in the Fribourger Prealps on the Brendelspitz. As guides we had the article by Braillard etal 2003 and the great little book Geologischer Pfad Gastlosen by Braillard and Rebetez (2010) (thank you Luc!).  What these, sadly, did not tell us, was that we underestimated Lady Winter’s resilience and had to fight through leg-deep snow at times. And no, we did not bring snowshoes… By then, we were too foolhardy and just had to get up there!

Radiolarite Braillard etal2003 web

various types of radiolarite, from Braillard etal 2003

The main raw materials used at the site during the Mesolithic are “Ölquartzite”, radiolarite and flint (Braillard, Menoud et al. 2003; Mauvilly 2005; Mauvilly, McCullough et al. 2008). Most of these raw materials are to be found at a not too great distance from the site of Arconciel/La Souche. The closest source would have been the Sarine riverbed. Radiolarite, “Ölquartzite” and some types of flint can be found there. In the Jura Mountains further flint sources are known. Sources of “Olquatzite” and radiolarite are known in the Fribourger Prealps, the range of middle high Alpine mountains in the southern parts of the canton, and in the neighbouring areas of the Bernese Oberland[1]. But I will focuss only on the radiolarite in this post. Continue reading

Malapa Cave – Australopithecus sediba

So now, of course, I can’t not draw your attention to the ~2mya Malapa Cave (South Africa) finds just published in Science, esp. as one of the authors has his home as the same university as I do (Zürich, Switzerland). The two partial skeletons, MH1 and MH2 are dubbed Australopithecus sediba. Who would want to miss out on the rare opportunity to name a new species, eh?

I haven’t read the articles yet, but I am sure to do so soon.  John Hawks has already some usefull comments on his blog.

Below the abstract of the main article in Science and the ref to the second article. It’s also worth to have a look at the website of the University of Zürich and the videos there, even if you don’t understand much German. The main video doesn’t show much of the bones, but is subtitled in English. What’s rather nice, is that Schmid and colleagues say that they want to keep the material available for and share it with other researchers, incl. the original material. Continue reading

Denisova II

I came across another article on the Denisova find here, on Spiegel-online, which includes a nice little slideshow (or in english), and John Hawks wrote a few more lines on it too.

Below the abstract of the letter in Nature:

Nature advance online publication 24 March 2010 | doi:10.1038/nature08976; Received 21 January 2010; Accepted 3 March 2010; Published online 24 March 2010

The complete mitochondrial DNA genome of an unknown hominin from southern Siberia

Johannes Krause1, Qiaomei Fu1, Jeffrey M. Good2, Bence Viola1,3, Michael V. Shunkov4, Anatoli P. Derevianko4 & Svante Pääbo1


With the exception of Neanderthals, from which DNA sequences of numerous individuals have now been determined, the number and genetic relationships of other hominin lineages are largely unknown. Here we report a complete mitochondrial (mt) DNA sequence retrieved from a bone excavated in 2008 in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia. It represents a hitherto unknown type of hominin mtDNA that shares a common ancestor with anatomically modern human and Neanderthal mtDNAs about 1.0 million years ago. This indicates that it derives from a hominin migration out of Africa distinct from that of the ancestors of Neanderthals and of modern humans. The stratigraphy of the cave where the bone was found suggests that the Denisova hominin lived close in time and space with Neanderthals as well as with modern humans.

  1. 1. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany
  2. 2. Division of Biological Sciences, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana 59812, USA
  3. 3. Department of Anthropology, University of Vienna, Althanstr. 14, A-1090 Wien, Austria
  4. 4. Paleolithic Department, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Russian Academy of Sciences, Siberian Branch, Lavrentieva Avenue, 17 Novosibirsk, RU-630090, Russia

Correspondence to: Johannes Krause1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to J.K. (Email: krause[at]eva.mpg.de).

Rückwege – Archaeology of the Silvretta at “Visualisation in Archaeology”

Archaeology has always had its own visual vocabulary. We show our research results to our colleagues and to the wider public. This can, at the danger of simplification, often be divided into two categories: 1.) the dokumentation of the research results (plans, finds, tables etc.); and 2.) those visualisations that convey our interpretations (e.g. reconstruction drawings).

If we take the accurate visual representation of lithics (chipped stone tools) research, Martingell and Saville (Martingell and Saville 1988; Saville 2009) for example, argue we should that we should attempt to include as much factual information, mainly on technology, in drawings. Saville (2009, p.750) also includes, rightly I believe, use wear results in this.

However, like with most visualisations, it is, e.g. difficult to use this style of illustration to represent the dynamic, non-linear character of technology. Riede (Riede 2006, fig. 6, p62) tries to represent an evolutionary chaîne opératoire – artefactontogenies and phylogenies – and as such also the dynamic nature of technology in a figure. Although it is not a bad attempt, it is still rather linear. I fear that most people, including archaeologists, who are not in detail familiar with these ideas, see little more then another representation of the classic reduction sequences he tries so hard to avoid. This is especially the case as I expect that for many researchers the idea of an evolutionary chaîne opératoire is rather counter intuitive.

I have not seen any really satisfying examples of illustrations showing the dynamic nature of technology or an evolutionary chaîne opératoire. Continue reading



EXPO¦ARCH¦DISS is a ‘travelling poster show’ of on-going PhD-research from archaeological PhD-students at Swiss universities or concerning ‘swiss’ topics. The exhibition will be shown at the yearly meetings of the associations of roman (ARS), classical (SAKA), prehistoric (AGUS) and medieval (SAM) archaeologists in Switzerland in 2010.

Our aim is to provide a platform of on-going PhD-projects in Switzerland or concerning Swiss topics and to bring PhD-students in touch with each other and with archaeologists in other institutes and companies.

The posters will contain a short summery of the research – questions and methods rather then results – and contact details. Besides, we hope to publish the posters on the www in the future.  Want to join? Drop us a line at expoarchdiss[at]gmx.ch.

We are looking forward to include as many projects as possible and are curious about your research.

Recumbent Stone Circles, Castles and a Shell Midden – archaeological photography

I came across these photos. They are contributions to Picturing The Past – Capturing Aberdeenshire’s Archaeology, a photography competition focussing on archaeological sites and monuments in Aberdeenshire.
They brought back good memories of fieldwork in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, digging and surveying Recumbent Stone Circles such as those on some of the photos. I also love the photo of the Mesolithic Shell Midden Sands of Forvie, Newburgh by Erin Taylor Sharp (Children’s category)!

B. Finlayson @ Universität Zürich & R. Ebersbach @ Berner Zirkel für Ur- und Frühgeschichte

I’d like to point out and invite you to two more talks in December that might interest readers in Switzerland. First, Bill Finlayson (CBRL, Jordan and University of Reading, UK) will give a lecture at the University of Zürich. He’ll speak on recent work in Jordan. Renate Ebersbach (Archäologische Dienst, Kt. Bern, CH) will talk on survey work in the Berner Oberland (Alpine regions of Canton Berne, CH) at the Berner Zirkel für Ur- und Frühgeschichte.

Bill Finlayson worked in Scotland, a. o. on a number of Mesolithic sites, and for the past decade or so has been director of the CBRL in Amman, Jordan. He is active in various Neolithic projects in the Levant. For example, as co-director of the excavations at the PPNA site Wadi Faynan 16. He also excavated the PPNA site of Dhra’ with Ian Kuijt and is involved in the Water-Life-Civilisation Project.

Date and location: Wednesday dec. 9th 2009, 18:00, Universität Zürich Room K02-F-153.

The Archaeological Unit of Canton Bern, CH, has been quite active with survey work in the Alpine regions of the Canton. The finds of the Schnidejoch, for example, have received quite some media attention. There has been a new surge of research in the Alpine regions of the country. The University of Zürich, the Unit of Canton Fribourg, Canton Schwyz, the Unit of Canton Bern, for example, are all active in different regions, mainly staging survey projects. Renate Ebersbach has executed a survey project in the region of Meiringen. She will also show a short film.

Date and location: Thursday dec. 17th 2009, 18:30, main building Universität Bern.

So come along, if you’re around! It would be good to see you there.

AG Mesolithikum, Luzern, CH, 2009

From April 3rd to 5th, the ‘AG Mesolithikum’ 2009 took place in Lucerne, Switzerland. The AG Mesolithikum is really a  group of mostly German Meso-researchers who meet once a year to informally exchange ideas and present their recent work. This year it travelled beyond its German homeland and the meeting was organised by Ebbe Nielsen, of the Kantonsarchäologie Luzern, Switzerland (Cantonal Archaeological Unit of Lucerne).

The Saturday was started with a short but enlightening introduction into the organisation and work of the Swiss Cantonal Archaeological Units, with special emphasis on Lucerne, by Head of Unit Jürg Manser. Willy Tinner followed by discussing the arguments for and against off-site palynological evidence for early cereal cultivation in the Alpine region. Although what he presented was not hugely different from the publication of Tinner etal 2007, it was interesting to hear Willy put forward the arguments in person and to be able to discuss them with him. He made clear that the evidence he put forward was not conclusive, but there is a large chance that Pre-Neolithic populations opened up the forest, especially around lakes and moors, and that around 6500 cal BC an increase in the presence of cerealia type pollen and adventives and apophytes can be observed in many cores. It also once again showed how fantastic the preservation of palynological evidence is in the (circum) alpine lakes.

Jehanne Affolter told us about her methodology for interpreting data on flint raw-material distribution in the circum alpine region. It was brought to the point how limiting the small number of known sites (esp. those well dated and with raw-material data) still is.

Claus-Joachim Kind and Dorothée Drucker presented fragments of 2 reindeer metatarsus from the Holocene site of Siebenlinden II, sth. Germany. Comparative isotope research indicates it would have lived in the same wooded and temperate environment as the roe deer and red deer from the site. D. Drucker next presented how isotope 13C & 15N research could possibly be used to reconstruct the Mesolithic human diet and environment. It seems to me, though, that the few known Mesolithic skeletons from Europe don’t allow for a sufficiently fine resolution yet.

Birgit Gehlen (Blätterhöhle, Hagen, GER), Michael Baales & Ingrid Koch (Kreuztal-Buschhütten & Netphen, GER) and Harald Lübke (waterlogged sites on Rügen, GER) presented new fieldwork in Germany. And Thomas Doppler presented the methodologies used on site by the University of Basel at Lutter, Abri St. Joseph (FR) and Arconciel/La Souche (CH) for recovering organic remains.

Erik Brinch Petersen, the only Danish participant, talked with great enthusiasm about – and showed us many photos of – beautiful decorated amber hangers known from the Danish Mesolithic. On Sunday Michel Mauvilly summarised the surveying work he and his colleagues in Ct. Fribourg (CH) have done. They already located a large number of find-spots in many of the (pre-) Alpine parts of the Canton (e.g. in the Petit Mont, Grand Mont and Oeschels valleys) and their distribution maps show clearly that blank spots on the map are largely the result of research biases. Their search for flint and other stone sources show interesting results as well, esp. when integrated with their survey and on-site work. This also suggests that the lack of knowledge we have of the prehistory of other Alpine regions is largely due to research biases; an observation that is supported by a number of other recent survey projects in Switzerland. But I’ll have to write some more about that in the future.

Thomas Richter (presenting fieldwork at Germering-Nebel (Bayern, GER) and Ebbe Nielsen finished off this part of the conference. Ebbe briefly introduced a site at the shores of the Soppensee (CH), where Late Palaeolithic and Early Mesolithic finds have been made. The Sunday then continued with a tour of the Soppensee and the Wauwilermoos near Lucerne, with its many famous Late Palaeolithic, Mesolithic (e.g. Schötz 7) and Neolithic (e.g. Egolzwil) sites.

Thanks to the organisers at the Kantonsarchäologie Luzern and the participants and especially to Ebbe Nielsen for a few pleasant days in Lucerne.


Often the way archaeology is portrayed and published is rather restrictive and can lack imagination. It also clearly has its own visual tradition and semantics. It is thus fantastic to see/hear a project like the composition NEANDERTHAL by welsh composer Simon Thorne which gives our scientific knowledge such a fresh and exciting voice. He composed a piece of music, a ‘soundscape to provide a musical illustration for the palaeolithic section of … [the National Museum of Wales'] … exhibit Origins of Early Wales.’


Simon Thorne in an interview: ‘The soundscape uses a degree of electronic manipulation, but the live piece will be just the four singers plus stones and whatever primitive sound-making system we feel is appropriate. It’s completely based on what we did in that initial three-hour session. We had to let go of our preconceptions about how we thought it should all go, and that opened up a really remarkable space.’


At the pieces’ first performance it was accompanied by a discussion of the composer with Prof. Steven Mithen, who has a strong interest in the evolution of language and music. Filmmakers were also invited to produce visualisations to accompany the soundscape.


Simon Thorne - Neanderthal

Simon Thorne - Neanderthal


Although archaeology is strongly based on the hard data obtained from excavation and the subsequent analysis of the findings thereof, there is, of course, also strong more or less subjective interpretation involved. As is the case with many of the ‘sciences’. Openly subjective or artistic representations and interpretations of the archaeological process and its results can be very interesting and informative and make us more (self-)conscious archaeologists. Either by using visual (or other sensory) representations or critiques. It opens up our archaeological eyes as well as the eyes of the wider public about the questions we ask, the methods we use to answer them, our dilemmas and our opportunities. Admitting to this subjectivity has been advocated by, a.o. many post- processualist archaeologists. I once came upon an article by a journalist who wrote that archaeology is a most complicated art, drawing on many sciences to paint its picture. Nonetheless I believe one of the main aims of archaeology is to understand past realities through the study of material remains.


However, it is not just archaeologists who are slowly (re-)discovering the values of artistic interpretation and representation of their work and findings. Researchers in other fields, like the physicists and the neuro-scientists mentioned in this piece on the website of Seedmagazine, are also finding it a valuable tool and medium. 


In their manifesto Cochrane and Russell have asked for a ‘re-engagement of archaeology with the history and contemporary practice of the visual arts’ (2007, p.8). and for archaeology ‘to express theoretical concepts in a format which is not constrained by linguistic context (2007, p.3). I believe this can be extended to the not explicitly theoretical part of archaeological practice and its findings. The NEANDERTHAL project for the National Museum Wales does exactly that, using not so much the visual as audio. It is an artistic and alternative (and seemingly educated) interpretation of Neanderthal sounds, based on current scientific thought, which transcends that of the scientific report.


As Thorne states on his website:

…why did we ever come to make music in the first place? The idea that Neanderthals sang their way through the landscape, and that early humans were also accomplished musicians creates a space that is ripe for conjecture…

The lure of experimentalism II

hafting a late mesolithic scraper

hafting a replica of a Late Mesolithic scraper

I have been meaning to post a few photos of the tanning I wrote about in The lure of experimentalism. Here they finally are; with many thanks to Fiona McCullough. The top photo shows the hafting of a replica of a late mesolithic scraper, as found at the site of Arconciel/La Souche, with vegetable tar and synthetic sinew on a hazelwood stick. This turned out to be remarkably easy and robust.

On the photo below Fiona and I are scraping one of the sheepskins. This skin had been dried for a while. Fiona is using a hafted scraper, I am trying an un-hafted scraper, which was far less effective than the hafted tools.

scraping sheepskin with late mesolithc scrapers

scraping sheepskin with replicas of Late Mesolithic scrapers

Below, I also added a photo of Matthias Bollinger’s and my attempt at making birch-tar . We used two cans, one as a container, the other one as a lid. The lid was perforated a few times to allow steam to escape. The can (400ml) was packed, although not too tightly, with birch-rind and produced ca. 3 cubic cm of tar.

making birch-tar

making birch-tar

hazelnut_relations auf Deutsch

Man kann jetzt auch auf Deutsch über mich & meine Arbeit lesen auf der Website der Abteilung Ur- & Frühgeschichte der Universität Zürich. (Siehe Profil, Biographie & Forschung)

I am now also present – in German – on the website of the Abteilung Ur- & Frühgeschichte of the University of Zürich. (See Profil, Biographie & Forschung)

Bronze Age, Spiez-Einigen, Ct. Berne, Switzerland

There we go, already diverging. My wife, Regula Gubler, and Marianne Rammstein, both Archaeological Unit Ct. Berne, Switzerland have made some fantastic discoveries in Berne’s Alpine Region.

Already in 1970, 2 Early Bronze Age graves dating to ca. 3800 BP were discovered at the Holleeweg in Spiez-Einigen, Ct. Berne, Switzerland. A concentration of graves dating to this period is known from the region around the Lake of Thun, Switzerland. It was therefore not much of a surprise to find more graves during building work carried out right next to the graves that were dug almost 40 years ago.

bronze age graves, Einigen, Switzerland

The newly discovered graves are well preserved. Two graves contain the skeleton of a woman. The other grave is actually a double grave of two young children. Of the grave-structures only the underground parts are preserved. These consist of grave pits, lined with stones. They were probably also covered with stones.

The skeletons and the grave goods are very well preserved. The grave goods of the women include wrist-bracelets, bronze pins (incl. a two-egged pin), finger-rings, a bronze necklace and hair adornments made of parallel placed bronze tubes at the back of the skull. At least one of the children also wore a finger-ring. The grave goods can typologically be dated in the period about 1800-1600 BC. The pottery found on site confirms this date.

Bronze Age Grave, Spiez-Einigen

Bronze Age grave 2, Spiez-Einigen

Even though no building remains were found, it can still be expected – because of the quantity of recovered ceramic – that a settlement existed in the immediate vicinity.

It is likely that the region formed part of transit-routes across the Alpes, as earlier finds and also the finds from these graves are known in various regions north and south of the Alpes.

Post-ex and anthropological work should shed more light on this. A re-analysis of the graves dug in1970 will probably be part of this.

Finds, Spiez-Einigen

More infos at the site of the Archäologischer Dienst Canton Berne.

Many thanks to Regula Gubler for the information & the photos!

UPDATE. The excavations have now been published:

Gubler, R. 2010. Spiez-Einigen, Holleeweg 3. Gräber am Übergang zwischen Früh- und Mittelbronzezeit, In Archäologie Bern/Archéologie bernoise. Jahrbuch des Archäologischen Dienstes des Kantons Bern/Annuaire du Service archéologique du canton de Berne, 147-173.

Cooper, C., Harbeck, M., Kühn, M., Rast-Eicher, A., Schweissig, M., Ulrich-Bochsler, S. & Vandorpe, P. 2010. Spiez-Einigen, Holleeweg 3: Naturwissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zu den bronzezeilichen Bestattungen, In Archäologie Bern/Archéologie bernoise. Jahrbuch des Archäologischen Dienstes des Kantons Bern/Annuaire du Service archéologique du canton de Berne, 2010, 175-198.

a little pilgrimage

arconciel la souche - in between digs

Last week I went to visit the site Arconciel La Souche, the material of which will take a central role in my PhD. Of course, I knew the field-season starts later in summer, but it is good to know what the place looks like. I hadn’t been there yet. So here a picture of what it looks like now. It looks like something of a cross between a building site and a military installation. It’s covered by a roof of scaffolding and lots of plastic and sandbags to prevent further erosion.

It lies on the beautiful grounds of the Cistercian abbey of Hauterive, in the Sarine valley.

As a display my déformation professionnelle another pic, an archaeologist’s lunch under an abri…

deformation professionnelle

the very very beginnings

Thanks for coming to have a look! As I am only just trying to make a start with my phd, I don’t have much to write yet. Sure, lots of information is already being stuffed into my brain, but still more is neatly stacked on my desk here. However, things are slowly taking shape and if you just bear with me for a bit, I’ll try to post something useful soon.