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. During the Early Atlantic, the site would have been surrounded by a forest mostly made up of lime trees and hazelbushes. Late Mesolithic people (6510 ± 110 BP) left only scant traces at Gripons: some charcoal and burnt earth indicate the presence of hearths. The flint assemblage of this horizon is small (less than 200 pieces of which only 21 tools). The tools seem to have been made on blades, and retouched blades dominate the assemblages. Other tools include 2 trapezes, a scraper and 2 broken blades. A use-wear study indicates the working of non-woody plant material, wood or fresh antler and meat. Many tools were apparently not used at all. Sadly, the calcinated bones could not be analysed.

Selectrion of lithic artefacts from the Late Meso horizon, St. Ursanne/Abri des Gripons (after Pousaz 1991)

The excavators think that the site was only briefly visited once of perhaps a few time, when people made made a fire and produced tools, particularly trapezes/microlithic arrowheads (although Pousaz confusingly writes that debitage is missing.) However, the late Mesolithic horizon does retain its Meso-street cred: the macro botanical remains are dominated by hazelnutshells, apparently, a true hazelnut bonanza!

Although there are some questions one could ask of the material and Pousaz and colleagues’ interpretations, it is an interesting site and I like the excavators’ multidisciplinary approach.

We visited the Grzegorz Rosinski exhibition, a comic artist best known for his Thorgal series. It is not hard to imagine that St. Ursanne and its surroundings inspired him as it did inspire the early Christians. And perhaps the mysterious forested valleys of the (Atlantic) Jura were equally fascinating to the hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic. I know I would go back there, if only for the antique shops, the caramels and pleasantly dated restaurants.

Nielsen, E. H., 2009, Paläolithikum und Mesolithikum in der Zentralschweiz. Mensch und Umwelt zwischen 17’000 und 5’500 v. Chr., Archäologische Schriften Lutern 13, Luzern

Pousaz, N., 1991, L’Abris-sous-roche Mésolithique des Gripons à Saint-Ursanne (Ju, Suisse), CAJ 2, Porrentruy

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