Hospental-Moos and the beauty of rock crystal

These artefacts can have something of an old-fashioned beauty, a tactile and organic beauty. There is the smoothness of the slightly undulating percussion ripples on the ventral face. The distal ends are often thin and even and clean-cut, whereas the sides can appear serrated. Where it was severed from the crystal the surface often has a slight oily shine. The opposite side, the dorsal surface, is quite the opposite of organic. It is flat, geometric, sometimes it seems as if it was build up of the thinnest of sheets of crystal. Its mass is fascinatingly transparent. But unlike glass, there are often impurities and ‘healed’ cracks that have grown back together and perhaps the fascination lies in the fact that these impurities and the structure of the opposite outside surface are so very visible.

Merovingian grave ensemble (Grave 413). Rijksmuseum voor Oudheden

Merovingian grave ensemble (Grave 413). Rijksmuseum voor Oudheden

The Naturhistorisches Museum in Berne exhibits an amazing array of crystals of all shapes, colours and sizes. The largest of these is the so-called Planggenstock treasure which was found in the crystalline mountains of the Canton of Uri, Switzerland. To this day ‘Strahler’, or ‘Strahlner’, search for rock crystal in the extension clefts of the Central Swiss Alps. An aquarelle from 1868 shows men on a glacier, against a steep rock face, wearing hats and heavy boots, busy with ropes and sledges and carrying racks as they mine the smokey quartz near the Tiefengletscher. The past few centuries most large crystal finds like these have ended up in museums and collections. And in a way the crystal bead from a Merovingian grave from Rhenen, the Netherlands is also part of a collection. A small private collection of beautiful, precious beads made of glass, amber and rock crystal. Later, during the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern times, rock crystal was often cut into reliquaries and splendid bowls, drinking vessels and carafes. Swiss rock crystal was valued by stone cutters, for example in Milan, for its purity and clarity.

Jug, gilded silver and rock crystal. 1500-1550 AD. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Jug, gilded silver and rock crystal. 1500-1550 AD. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Many years later the Dutch artist Hans Lemmen, fascinated by both palaeolithic hand-axes and crystal,

had a number of hand-axes knapped from blocks of synthetic crystal, which were shown solely for their aesthetic value at the Limburgs Museum.

Although this does not exclude an insensitivity to its beauty, it seems the Late Mesolithic stone knappers at Hospental-Moos had different reasons for using rock crystal to produce tools, scrapers and arrowheads. The knapping techniques used at Hospental-Moos suggest these people had not specialised on working rock crystal, but used similar techniques as were used for working more common raw materials, like flint and radiolarite. Apparently, they just used the raw material that was available to them in the central Swiss Alps.

Hand axe, synthetic crystal. Hans Lemmen.

Hand axe, synthetic crystal. Hans Lemmen.

The past few months I have been working on my PhD, getting to know the digital microscope I am doing the lithic microscopic use wear analyses for my PhD research with. I have also been doing the lithic analyses of the Late Mesolithic finds from Hospental-Moos in the Canton Uri, Switzerland. The photo below was made with that digital microscope. It is a difficult material for the archaeologist, rock crystal. The artefacts are often hard to read. Retouch, percussion characteristics such as bulbs and ripples etc. are not always easily recognised. They are also difficult to draw or photograph. However, the tools are fascinating and beautiful. The site, which also shows evidence of early Bronze Age occupation, is equally fascinating from an archaeological point of view. Sites dating to the latest Mesolithic in Switzerland and especially the Swiss Alps are rare. However, slowly the  evidence for the use of the subalpine and alpine zones during the Late Mesolithic in Central and Eastern Switzerland is amassing. The earliest Neolithic, however, remains even more elusive.

Hospental-Moos, Switzerland. Scraper, rock crystal

Hospental-Moos, Switzerland. Scraper, rock crystal. Made with a digital microscope, 10x.

The site and the finds have been published in this years volume of the Urner Historisches Neujahrsblatt. Further articles in that volume will deal with the medieval and roman finds we made during the survey work in the Urseren Valley and another with a micro-botanical core taken from an upland moor near the site. A further article will be on the geology of the region and the vegetational history reconstructed using (sub-)fossil wood samples. These last two will provide insights into the valley’s so far poorly understood vegetation history.

One response to “Hospental-Moos and the beauty of rock crystal

  1. Pingback: Prehistoric rock crystal extraction in the Alps | hazelnut relations

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