Tag Archives: Schweiz

Ski piste archaeology, elusive hunter-gatherers and WWI – Traversar VIII

Time to finally write a last “Traversar” post for this year. There are really two sides to our Passes of the Grison Project. Mostly we do inventory related work. We survey the study areas and record any archaeological sites we discover. There is of course a research element to this. The archaeology of many of the regions we study is not very well-known and anything we discover increases our knowledge of the (pre-)history of the region. We don’t excavate, though. We do make small test-trenches of up to ca. 30×30 cm or take auger cores at most sites we find. These allow us to evaluate the stratigraphy and if we are lucky we might find artefacts or, more likely, we can take charcoal samples for radiocarbon dating.

Recording probably 20th century military structures near the Passo Bornengo.

Recording probably 20th century military structures near the Passo Bornengo.

The sites we find become part of the cantonal database of archaeological sites. This again allows the archaeological service to react when sites become threatened by building plans, erosion, ploughing etc. Our work in the Oberalppass area is an example of this. You might not realise it, but mountain slopes get bulldozed quite properly these days before they become a ski-piste. Also, pylons for lifts, water pipes for artificial snow-installations, foundations for your favourite ski bar and artificial lakes to hold water for making artificial snow, they all need substantial holes in the ground. A major expansion of the Andermatt-Sedrun Ski Arena is planned. And the Disentis 3000 ski area plans to install a whole system of snow blowers to guarantee its guests a good snow cover. Such plans will become ever more common with increasing winter temperatures and should get appropriate archaeological attention throughout the Alps.

Passo Bornengo. Probable military structures (20th C).

Passo Bornengo. Probable military structures; terracing & building remains (20th C).

So on Wednesday, we surveyed the relevant parts of the Disentis 3000 ski resort. Rudolf Büchi kindly took the time to explain the current plans and let us use the ski lifts to save time. Up in the ski area we were surprised to find quite a few hitherto unknown archaeological sites as well as further archaeologically interesting areas. It will be very very interesting to have a more detailed look at the finds we made and see the dates we get from the charcoal samples we took. Other areas, however, have already been heavily disturbed by previous building activities.

The days after this we were lucky the weather got a bit better. We turned our attention to the upper part of the Val Maighels and the Val Strem. In both valleys we recorded a number of building remains, which may relate to transhumance activity of Medieval or post-Medieval date. One of these, near the Chrüzlipass in the Val Strem, might well be much older. Very exciting. Hunter-gatherers and shepherds remained rather elusive, as so often. However, both on the Passo Bornengo and the Chrüzlipass we were surprised to find substantial building remains. These are almost certainly military, probably part of the fortifications made during the WWI. Later 20th century military structures are often well recorded, but few records exist of these WWI fortifications. Although Switzerland was neutral during WWI, mobilisation did take place and many passes were fortified. The canton of Graubünden/Grison has started to record some of these, hopefully other cantons with strategic passes will follow this example soon.

Val Maighels, near Passo Bornengo.

Val Maighels, near Passo Bornengo.

The finds we made in these two valley reflect the situation we found the rest of the week as well. Despite the not ideal weather, we have been able to do almost everything we wanted. Also, our expectations based on our desk-based work have been fulfilled. So also methodologically, we seem to be on the right track. Concerning those elusive hunter-gatherers, perhaps they did not leave many traces, perhaps these can only be found with more intensive surveying and more test-trenching.

Preparing for fieldwork – Traversar IV

Het is stil in Nederland.

“Mr. President,

We are here to discuss a tragedy: the downing of a commercial airliner and the death of 298 innocent people. Men, women and a staggering number of children lost their lives, on their way to their holiday destinations, their homes, loved ones, their jobs or international obligations. Since Thursday I’ve been thinking how horrible the final moments of their lives must have been, when they knew the plane was going down. Did they lock hands with their loved ones, did they hold their children close to their hearts, did they look each other in the eyes, one final time, in a wordless goodbye? We will never know.

The demise of almost 200 of my compatriots has left a hole in the heart of the Dutch nation, has caused grief, anger and despair. Grief for the loss of loved ones, anger for the outrage of the downing of a civilian airplane and despair after witnessing the excruciatingly slow process of securing the crash site and recovering the remains of the victims. …”

Speech to the UN Security Council by Frans Timmermans, Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Netherlands

It seems to me lately we are confronted again and again by waves of news of people suffering from violent conflicts they might have no active part in. News from Syria, Nigeria, Afganistan, Sudan, Irak, Palestine and many other places across the globe, like the Ukraine. And now the Netherlands – the country I was born and grew up in – mourns, is quiet.

Many of us are lucky. Our lives continue, almost as usual. And I have been feeling a little guilty about looking forwards to and preparing for our next fieldwork campaign of the Traversar Pässe Project. But perhaps we owe it to our loved ones, all those who do not have the possibility to do so and who have passed too young, to make the most of our lives, to enjoy it and make the best of it.

Remains of one of the many old incarnations of the road leading from the north over the San Bernardinopass.

Remains of one of the many old incarnations of the road leading from the north over the San Bernardinopass.

Last year a small team commissioned be the Archaeological Service of the canton of the Grison (ADG), started a survey project of the main passes of the Grison. We started with the San Bernardino region. This weekend we head into the field again. The Oberalp- and Lukmanierpasses are the main focus of this year’s campaign. This is all the more pressing as large construction works are planned for the near future, which should lead to the connection of the skiing areas of Andermatt and Sedrun.

Not much is known about the archaeology of the region yet. But with these important passes and the important Monastery in Disentis/Mustér the region has had a prominent role in more recent history of the Alps of Central Switzerland. Also the regions in the cantons of Uri and Ticino west of the Oberalppass and southwest of the Lukmanierpass have been studied during the past 2-3 decades by the Leventina (Hess et al 2010) and the Gottthard Projects of the University of Zürich (Primas et al 1992) and a rescue archaeological project in the Urserenvalley (Urner Historisches Neujahrsblatt 2013, e.g. Auf der Maur & Cornelissen 2013). We thus expect our study area to have much archaeological potential. The first deskbased work seems to confirm this.

Simultaneously, the documentation of remains of WWI fortifications near the Umbrailpass will continue. We will also host the kAltes Eis-Project whose team will undoubtely make us run up to many faraway ice patches high up the end of some valley to look for archaeological remains.

We will have limited internet access in the Vorderrheinvalley, but hope to report whenever possible of our progress. Most likely here or on twitter (hashtag #traversar). You might also want to keep an eye on the Alpine Archaeology facebookpage.

Heading to the Vorderrhein we will be gratefull that we are able to continue doing such fascinating archaeological work in a beautiful part of the world with great friends and colleagues and fab archaeologists.

 

AUF DER MAUR, C. & CORNELISSEN, M. 2013. Die spätmesolithische und bronzezeitliche Fundstelle Hospental-Moos. Ein Einblick in das urgeschichtliche Urserntal. Historisches Neujahrsblatt, 68, 37-84. (As well as furhter contributions in this volume).

HESS, T., REITMAIER, T., JOCHUM ZIMMERMANN, E., BALMER, A., DOBLER, I. & DELLA CASA, P. 2010. Leventina – prähistorische Siedlungslandschaft. Archäologischer Survey im alpinen Tessintal und entlang der Gotthardpassroute 2007/2008: kommentierter Katalog. Jahresbuch der Archäologie Schweiz, 93, 173-193.

PRIMAS, M., DELLA CASA, P. & SCHMID-SIKIMIC, B. 1992. Archäologie zwischen Vierwaldstättersee und Gotthard: Siedlungen und Funde der ur- und frühgeschichtlichen Epochen, Bonn, Habelt

 

MesoLife – Scrapers, lithic technology and use wear and the Mesolithic of the Swiss Alps

What better way to celebrate the beginning of summer, than to spend a few days relishing the combined joys of the Alps with the Mesolithic? I will be deep in the Dolomites this week, at the MesoLife conference in the Museo Vittorino Cazzetta, Italy. Together with Laure Bassin I have made a poster with some of the first combined results of our PhD research. We have looked at the technological aspects and the microscopic use wear of scrapers from the Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche. Below you find the abstract and you can download a pdf of the poster.

Microscopic use wear traces on three Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, CH. Left to right: Radiolarite, fine-grained quartzite and flint.

Microscopic use wear traces on three Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, CH. Left to right: Radiolarite, fine-grained quartzite and flint.

Together with Thomas Reitmaier I will also present a talk summarising the recent work and new Mesolithic finds in the alpine parts of southeastern Switzerland. Either one of us was involved in almost all of the new discoveries. This is quite something, as less than a decade ago hardly any sites were known here. Do have a look at the abstract at the end of the post. We hope to get a synthesis published sometime in the near future.

Alpine raw materials and the production and use of scrapers at the Swiss Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche
Due to their abundance, scrapers can be regarded as the typifying tool category of the site of Arconciel/La Souche, a rock shelter with a well stratified, multi-phased Late Mesolithic occupation (7000 – 5000 cal BC).
The site is located in the Sarine valley, on the edge of the Swiss Plateau at the foot of the Prealps. Much of the lithic assemblage is produced on raw material which originates from these nearby Prealps. The remainder of the artefacts are made from raw material brought here from further afield, e.g. the Jura mountains, the Geneva region and eastern France.
A large majority of the tools found at Arconciel/La Souche are scrapers (46% of the tool assemblage). Chaînes opératoires studies and microscopic use wear analysis are combined to investigate how the variety of local and non-local raw material relates to the production and use of the scrapers. As well as determining whether tool use might have varied according to raw material, these studies raise questions relating to the possibility of foreign techniques being imported along with the raw material. This will not only aid the interpretation of one of the most important Mesolithic sites in Switzerland, it might also provide insights into the developments at the end of the Mesolithic on the northern edge of the Swiss Alps.   –   Laure Bassin (Université du Neuchâtel) & Marcel Cornelissen (Universität Zürich)

Alpine raw materials and the production and use of scrapers at the Swiss Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche (PDF)

Filling the gap – Recent Mesolithic discoveries in the Swiss Alps
Until less than a decade ago, it seemed that – unlike in the surrounding part of the Alps – no sites dating between the end of the LGM and the Middle Neolithic existed in the alpine regions of central and south-eastern Switzerland. A number of recent rescue excavations, research projects and single finds have now proven the presence of people in these parts of the Alps from the 9th Millennium cal BC onwards. The majority of the currently known sites date between 7500 and 6500 cal BC. Both open-air sites and rock shelters are represented. Many sites lie above the valley floor, in the upper subalpine or alpine zones, and on routes to minor as well as major passes.
Together with new palaeoenvironmental data, these archaeological finds allow us first insights into the nature of interaction of Mesolithic people in the south-eastern Swiss Alps with their social and natural environment and into their relationship with regions further afield. Furthermore, the finds allow us to think about future research into the early prehistory of the south-eastern Swiss Alps.   –   Marcel Cornelissen (Universität Zürich) & Dr. Thomas Reitmaier (Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden)

 

Visualising lithic use wear traces – photo stacking

It is not always immediately apparent to non-specialists what we – use wear analysts – do and see and how we can be certain of our observations. This is partially due to the imagery many use wear analysts produce. In a recent paper A. van Gijn (2013) reflects on the current state of the field of lithic microwear or use-wear analysis and points out a number of aspects of our work in which improvements are possible or even necessary. These, in my opinion rightly, include an increase in sample sizes (e.g. by scanning tools with a stereomicroscope before moving on to higher magnifications); more incorporation of ethnographic data; a standardisation of practise and nomenclature; embedding the use wear traces in the cultural biographies of artefacts and providing better quality imagery.

The basal end of a Mesolithic scraper from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland (quartzit au grain fin/Ölquarzit). Left a normal photo. Right a composite photo of the same part of the artefact. Taken with a Keyence Digital Microscope.

The basal end of a Mesolithic scraper from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland (quartzit au grain fin/Ölquarzit). Left a normal photo. Right a composite photo of the same part of the artefact. Taken with a Keyence Digital Microscope.

The last point can be achieved by photo-stacking through the use of specialist software or microscopes, such as the digital microscope I use, which are able to make composite photos. The image above shows what photo stacking or composite photos allows you to do.

One major drawback of the microwear approach is the lack of convincing visual evidence. The pictures generally shown at meetings are fuzzy and lack depth of field. Usually only a small part of the photograph is sharp, namely the spot of polish we want to address. Although insiders may usually see and recognize what is being discussed, it is little wonder that the general audience has no idea what it has to look at and remains rather skeptical. There is much to gain from improving the visualization of the microwear traces. – A. L. van Gijn (2013 – p. 3)

Typically, it is difficult to make microscopic photos of larger parts of artefacts that are in focus. Photo stacking, however, allows exactly this: an increased depth of field with much larger parts of the artefact shown in focus. This way not only the traces, but also their contexts can be visualised. I find this technique does not work very well in all situations or for all raw-materials or for all traces. Nonetheless, it makes our work more effective and it will surely allow us to communicate our methodology and findings much better not only to fellow specialists, but also to non-use wear specialist archaeologists and the general public.

ResearchBlogging.org

Gijn, van A. (2013). Science and interpretation in microwear studies, Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI:

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.

ResearchBlogging.org

Literature

 

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

Sharing the joy of scrapers

Fribourg near the SAEF

Fribourg near the SAEF

Today I met up with my project partner Laure in Fribourg, to discuss our progress and collect another sample of chipped stone artefacts for use wear analyses. We do not work in the same place and do not see each other every day. So, it is always stimulating and encouraging and fun to meet up and exchange ideas and plans as well as problems and results.

30 000 chipped stone artefacts (8000 - 7500 years old) on a table

30 000 chipped stone artefacts (8000 – 7500 years old) on a table

At the moment we are both working on the Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. We are working towards a poster for the MesoLife conference this June and it is our aim to look at the relationship between production, use and raw material of the exceptionally many scrapers found at Arconciel/La Souche and how this develops towards the end of the Mesolithic. It was great to see that the method of our combined approaches will, as we hoped and planned, indeed bear fruit and comparing technology and typology with use will bring further insights into Late Mesolithic behaviour just North of the Alps.

Snapshot of the sample of Late Mesolithic scrapers (~6000-5500 BC) from Arconciel/La Souche I selected today

Snapshot of the sample of Late Mesolithic scrapers (~6000-5500 BC) from Arconciel/La Souche I selected today

 

Oh, and this is me playing with a fancy digital microscope. Thanks to the University of Fribourg for that!

Oh, and this is me playing with a fancy digital microscope. Thanks to the University of Fribourg for that!

Pile dwellings and dug-outs. A review of two archaeological exhibitions in Bern and Biel.

The first European Neolithic site I dug was in the south of the Netherlands. All we found were post holes, colourful traces in the yellow sand. We found a handful of pottery shards and a few flint tools, and not very nice ones either, as far as I remember. We were most excited about the remains of traces of old top soils from various periods, or at least I was. It was all very different from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites in Jordan I had worked on, where we found huge quantities of finds as well as standing walls.
Yesterday was the official opening of the new exhibition at the Bernisches Historisches Museum. A new temporary exhibition on the Pfahlbauer – Am Wasser und über die Alpen (The Pile Dwellers – on the water and over the alps). And it’s a jaw dropper! I remember the reverence in the voice of the lecturer – I think it was Prof. G. Barker – of our introductory course at University of Leicester. There was obviously something very special about these Swiss Lake side villages. And indeed, you do not have to work in Swiss archaeology long to realise there is something extraordinary about these sites.

Visual zur Wechselausstellung «Die Pfahlbauer – Am Wasser und über die Alpen» © Bernet & Schönenberger, Gestaltung und Typografie, Zürich

Visual zur Wechselausstellung «Die Pfahlbauer – Am Wasser und über die Alpen»
© Bernet & Schönenberger, Gestaltung und Typografie, Zürich

In the middle of the 19th Century Switzerland made a new start, with a new constitution and a new political organisation. Around the same time the first Lake side villages were discovered when, during a dry summer, water levels in lakes across the country dropped dramatically. The inhabitants and builders of these Pfahlbauten, or pile dwellings, have since played a remarkable symbolic role in the building and maintaining of the Swiss national identity. The exhibition, however, only goes into this very briefly and mostly pictorial.

For me as an archaeologist one of the most exciting aspects of these Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, which date between 4300 – 800 BC, is the Continue reading