Prehistoric rock crystal extraction in the Alps

I have written about the most famous rock crystal find from the Swiss Alps, the Planggenstock Treasure and the use of rock crystal through the millennia before. We know where the Planggenstock Treasure and other recent finds were originally found. Indeed, often we can show historic mining to have taken place in various clefts, there might even be historical written sources.

Prehistoric rock crystal mining sites in the Alps are rare, though. That is mainly because they were also exploited in historic times and this more recent activity has destroyed evidence of earlier, prehistoric mining. At the Riepenkar cleft, situated at 2800masl in the Zillertaler Alps, in Tirol, Austria Leitner and Bachnetzter are able to separate prehistoric artefacts from younger mining debris through painstaking sieving and selecting. They date these artefacts typologically to the Mesolithic and Neolithic (Leitner, 2013; Leitner and Bachnetzer, 2011). Although I realise the work is continuing, I would have liked a bit more detail about how they come to this date. In Switzerland such extraction sites with evidence of prehistoric mining are, as far as I know, unknown. Rock crystal artefacts, however, are far from seldom in Switzerland, e.g. quite a number are known from the Vallais. Also, three sites with a predominantly rock crystal lithic assemblage are known from the Ursernvalley, Canton Uri in Central Switzerland. These date to the Mesolithic and the End of the Neolithic/Early Bronze Age. The lithic assemblage of Andermatt, Hospental-Moos and a multi-phased hearth and associated finds from Airolo-Alpe di Rodont date to the Mesolithic(Auf der Maur and Cornelissen, 2014; Hess et al., 2010). The finds scatter at Andermatt, Hospental-Rossplatten dates around 2000 cal BC (Primas, 1992).

Auswahl an steinzeitlichen Geräten aus Bergkristall vom Riepenkar

Auswahl an steinzeitlichen Geräten aus Bergkristall
vom Riepenkar. 1-5 Lamellen, 6-7 Stichel,
8-10 Kratzer, 11-13 Bohrer (Graphik: B. Nutz und
A. Blaickner).
– Selection of stone age tools of rock crystal
from the Riepenkar. 1-5 blades, 6-7 burins, 8-10
scrapers, 11-13 piercers (grafics: B. Nutz and A.
– Selezione di manufatti protostorici in cristallo
di rocca del Riepenkar. 1-5 lame, 6-7 bulini,
8-10 grattatoi, 11-13 perforatori (grafica: B. Nutz e
A. Blaickner). (Leitner 2013, Fig. 4)

It seems the Rossplatten finds are related to rock crystal extraction. Not only is the finds scatter situated near an empty extension cleft, from which the excavators believe the raw-material comes. Moreover, technological analyses of the artefact assemblage shows the initial working of crystals was the predominant activity here. At Andermatt, Hospental-Moos, however, knapping activities were much more varied and besides initial core working and the production of half products, they also included the production of tools. Finds also show that, even though the site is located in the cleft, the parts of the chaîne opératoire which were actually preformed here include those seen at Andermatt, Hospental-Rossplatten and those seen at Andermatt, Hospental-Moos. Besides the extraction and the initial working of the crystals, the excavators at Riepenkar are finding a wide variety of artefact types, including formal tool types, such as borers and scrapers and retouched blades (Leitner, 2013). While admitting that sourcing rock crystal is difficult, Leitner and Bachnetzer suggest that the raw material, or perhaps half-products, might have been exported to a large numbers of sites in Tirol, Austria and South-Tirol, Italy (Leitner and Bachnetzer, 2011). That the Swiss evidence for the prehistoric extraction and use of rock crystal for artefact production is concentrated in Central Switzerland and the Vallais is no surprise, geologically.

However, rock crystal artefacts are known, albeit in small numbers from many prehistoric sites across Switzerland, in the Alps and beyond. The Late Mesolithic assemblage from Arconciel/La Souche I am looking at for my PhD research, for example, includes a small number of rock crystal artefacts (Mauvilly et al., 2008). It is one of many examples of prehistoric sites in from regions beyond where rock crystal geologically occurs. To mention just one other example, in an Early Bronze Age grave at Spiez-Einigen, near the Lake of Thun, three pieces of rock crystal were found near the head and hips of a 25-40 year old woman (Gubler, 2010). Furthermore, rock crystal also regularly appears in the Neolithic and Bronze Age lake side villages of the Swiss Plateau. Slowly we are starting to see a bit how rock crystal was used in the Alps throughout prehistory. This seems to range from the functional to the symbolic. A lot of work still needs to be done before we can really begin to understand what rock crystal meant to people throughout the ages and how they acquired and worked it and why.

Thanks to Thomas Bachnetzer! Literature

• Auf der Maur, C., Cornelissen, M. (2014). Die spätmesolithische und bronzezeitliche Fundstelle Hospental-Moos. Ein Einblick in das urgeschichtliche Urserntal. Historisches Neujahrsblatt 68, 37-84.
• Gubler, R. (2010). Spiez-Einigen, Holleeweg 3. Gräber am Übergang zwischen Früh- und Mittelbronzezeit. Archäologie Bern/Archéologie bernoise. Jahrbuch des Archäologischen Dienstes des Kantons Bern/Annuaire du Service archéologique du canton de Berne, 147-173.
• 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.
Leitner, W. (2013). Steinzeitliche Gewinnung von Bergkristall am Riepenkar in den Tuxer Alpen (Tirol) Preistoria Alpina, 47, 23-26
Leitner, W., Bachnetzer, T. (2011). Steinzeitliche Gewinnung von Bergkristall in den Tuxer Alpen Oeggl, K., Goldenberg, G., Stöllner, T., Prast, M. (Eds.), Die Geschichte des Bergbaus in Tirol und seinen angrenzenden Gebieten. Proceedings zum 5. Milestone-Meeting des SFB-HiMAT vom 7.–10.10.2010 in Mühlbach. innsbruck university press, Innsbruck, 193-197
• Mauvilly, M., Dafflon, L., McCullough, F. (2008). L’abri mésolithique d’Arconciel/La Souche: bilan des recherches 2003-2007. Cahiers d’Archéologie Fribourgeoise 10, 44-74.
• Primas, M. (1992). Archäologische Untersuchungen im Urserental, in: Primas, M., Della Casa, P., Schmid-Sikimi, B. (Eds.), Archäologie zwischen Vierwaldstättersee und Gotthard: Siedlungen und Funde der ur- und frühgeschichtlichen Epochen, 12 ed. Habelt, Bonn, pp. 307-323.


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