Digging a multi period site in the southern Swiss Alps

It is a wonderful feeling to see, feel and hear how you scrape free a new layer or feature. It does not matter whether your tool is a shovel or trowel, the tool in your hand moving intuitivelly in the dirt, flicking a stone or taking that little bit more dirt away. Or whether your eyes follow the shovel of a mechanical digger as it tentatively scrapes and collects dirt. The texture, colour and the sound, often even the smell change. The distinctive sound of metal against flint or ceramics. I wrote a while ago that I dug a number of prehistoric sites in the Alps last summer. One was in the Val Forno valley, above Maloja in the southern Swiss Alps.

An amateur archaeologist had found a number of Mesolithic flint artefacts in the eroded sides of a hollowed out single track hiking path (Seifert 2008). Me and four friends spend a lovely week’s `holiday´ digging two test trenches to establish the extend of the site, how much it was threatened by erosion and hikers and to see how much it was still present. We uncovered a number of hearths and have since obtained AMS C14 dates from various hearths and layers, spanning nine millennia[1]. We tried to sieve as much spoil as possible on site, but it was impossible to get through it all, so we carried it down. We dragged roughly 50 bags of 4-9 liter of earth down, helped by some very friendly passing hikers, who volunteered to carry some bags down. (Thank you so much, if you happen to read this!)

Last week we continued the site’s excavation in the labs of the Archäologischer Dienst des Kantons Graubünden (Cantonal Unit of Grison). Bag after bag, context by context, we wet-sieved for finds. Using a column of sieves with decreasing mesh-width, water becomes our tool as we wash the finds from the earth. It is much wetter affair, but we agreed that there is still the wonderful smell of moist earth as soon as you open the bag.

Stampa Maloja, wet sieving and flotation residues

Stampa Maloja, wet sieving and flotation residues

However, it is not just the finds that we look for. Flotation allows the recovery of organic macro remains such as charred seeds, (burned) bone fragments and charcoal. Finds are typically scarce on these alpine sites. Seeds, bone and charcoal can tell us much about vegetation, fauna and climate as well as about the diet of the site’s inhabitants. Charred material and charcoal provide absolute dates through C14-analysis and dendrochronology.

In Val Forno we back filled the trenches and took measures to try to prevent further erosion. In our labs and offices we continue our excavation and hope to find some way (the eternal search for funding) to be able to analyse the finds and organic remains in greater detail.

Seifert, M., 2008, Stampa, Maloja, Plan Canin (LK 1276, 775 090/137 530, 1985 m ü. M.), in Jahresbericht ADG 2008, p.93-94


[1] Thanks to a friendly donation by an architectural practice in St. Moritz!

One response to “Digging a multi period site in the southern Swiss Alps

  1. Pingback: Wrapping up the Neolithic Package – a book cover | hazelnut relations

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