Gardening and the onset of agriculture in the Swiss Alps

Hordeum vulgare Imperialgerste, 2 row hulled summer barley

Hordeum vulgare Imperialgerste, 2 row hulled summer barley

A small patch of my garden has become an unlikely symbol of my archaeological activities of the past 4-5 years. Far away on the slopes of the lower Engadin Valley in the south eastern corner of Switzerland, deep in the central Alps lies the village of Ramosch. Nearby a well preserved terrace landscape is still visible. Recent archaeological work has shown that these terraces date back to the Late Neolithic. These terraces have been used well into the 20th C AD to grow flax and cereals, mostly rye and barley which does not mind dry spells and the short growing season. Even to this day brewing barley is grown in the Lower Engadin Valley above 1000masl from which Birra Engiadinaisa makes some very good brews.

The presence of terraces such as these and settlement sites dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages in combination with the lack of known sites of similar dates in the higher side valleys prompted the Rückwege Projekt (Reitmaier, 2012), in which I took part 2010 and 2011. Since then I have not been able to let loose the archaeology of the Alps anymore. And now barley from Ramosch is growing just below my office window (obtained through the fantastic organisation ProSpecieRara). Also, with a few friends we are starting a new three year project in the Alps this August, about which I will write more some time soon.

Although I am relishing the idea of cooking some fine Bündner Gerstensuppe (barley soup), I am almost more keen for the actual harvesting of the ripe grains using experimentally made Mesolithic chipped stone blades. The focus of the experiment will be on the tools as they will become part of the reference collection for the use wear analyses of the artefacts from Arconciel/La Souche and Lutter/St. Joseph. There has been a long debate about pre-Neolihtic cereal use in Central Western Europe (Behre, 2007, Tinner et al., 2007). Perhaps the experimental harvesting of this barley in combination my use wear analyses of Late Mesolithic artefacts will be able to contribute a little to our understanding of the processes of the adoption of agriculture in the region.

Literature

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

REITMAIER, T. 2012. Letzte Jäger, erste Hirten. Alpine Archäologie in der Silvretta 2007-2012. In: REITMAIER, T. (ed.) Letzte Jäger, erste Hirten. Hochalpine Archäologie in der Silvretta. Chur: Amt für Kultur, Archäologische Dienst Graubünden (ADG)

Tinner W., Nielsen E. & Lotter A.F. (2007). Mesolithic agriculture in Switzerland? A critical review of the evidence, Quaternary Science Review, 26 1416-1431. DOI:

2 responses to “Gardening and the onset of agriculture in the Swiss Alps

  1. Pingback: Barley and hops | hazelnut relations

  2. Pingback: Sickles? You’ve been wondering about sickles? | hazelnut relations

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