Category Archives: experimental archaeology


Experimenting with notched blades

This gallery contains 2 photos.

Sickles? You’ve been wondering about sickles?

In Switzerland the Neolithic first becomes really visible around 4300 BC, in fact it bursts onto the scene quite extravagantly. Palafittes, Seeufersiedlungen, lake side villages. Because of the fantastic preservation of organic finds such as wood and bone, they are the showstoppers of Swiss archaeology.

Sickle from Egolzwil, canton Lucerne, Switzerland; ca. 4300 BC. Ash wood, birch tar and flint. Figure adapted from: Bachman & Hügi, 2004, Die Pfahlbauer/Les Lacustres: 150 Objekte erzählen 150 Geschichten / 150 objets racontent 150 histoires, p. 117

Sickle from Egolzwil, canton Lucerne, Switzerland; ca. 4300 BC. Wood and flint. Adapted from: Bachman & Hügi, 2004, Die Pfahlbauer/Les Lacustres: 150 Objekte erzählen 150 Geschichten / 150 objets racontent 150 histoires, p. 117

I have been wondering about sickles lately. About sickles of the earliest Neolithic and perhaps the latest Mesolithic and about the way they were used and what they might have been used to harvest. As finds of any kind dating to the earliest Neolithic up to about 4500 BC are very very rare in what is now Switzerland, it makes sense to use the fantastic archaeological archive of the Lake side villages. (Sickles also play quite a role in the history of use wear analysis and more here.)

4500 BC. That is when the Late Neolithic starts here. Before that there are a barely visible Early (from ca. 5500 BC) and Middle Neolithic (from ca. 5000 BC). We known of a few sites dating to the Early Neolithic, though. Some very rare

LBK settlements are found, mostly in those few scraps of Swissness north of the Rhine, such as two sites in Gächlingen, Schaffhausen and Bottmingen/Bäumliackerstrasse, Basel. A small remnant of an early deposit at the site of Herznach-Unterdorf, in the Aargauer Jura might be the first place where LBK pottery was found south of the Rhine (JbAS 2013, p. 172). Further “Neolithic” finds are know from unstratified contexts or from sites otherwise attributed to the Late Mesolithic. This includes La Hoguette pottery fragments and/or Bavans projectile points from, for example Baulmes/Abri de la Cure and Mont la Ville/Col du Mollendruz, Abri Freymond or sites in the canton of Lucerne. And indeed from Lutter/St. Joseph (FR), one of the two sites from which I am studying finds for my PhD, Grossgartach pottery is known. Lastly, occasionally occupation layers older than the Late Neolithic lake side villages are observed underneath Late Neolithic deposits, but the evidence is scant and there is not much more to say about these or the sickles that might once have been used by the people living in Bottmingen or in Baumles or Lutter. In the Alsace, North of my study sites, relatively many Early Neolithic sites are known.

Sickle from Burgäschisee, canton Berne, Switzerland; ca. 3500 BC. Adapted from: Osterwalder & André, 1980. Fundort Schweiz Band 1.

Sickle from Burgäschisee, canton Berne, Switzerland; ca. 3500 BC. The extention at the top of the photo will have had a similar function as the hook on the sickle shown below.
Figure adapted from: Osterwalder & André, 1980. Fundort Schweiz Band 1.

Together with the archaeobotanical discussion about cereal-type pollen from off-site locations, the small Early Neolithic archaeological record leaves many questions unanswered. Questions about the definition of the “Neolithic” and “Mesolithic”, about the economies of the 7th and 6th millennium BC, about harvesting technologies and their first appearances in the archaeological record of the region. Naturally, this will all feature in my PhD research, in fact I have already conducted harvesting experiments (and here). But what do these sickles look like? Their striking variation is shown by the examples shown here. They are some of the older, well preserved sickles from Swiss (Late) Neolithic lake side villages. So, yes, sickles.

Sickle from Egolzwil, canton Lucerne, Switzerland; ca. 38000 BC. Figure adapted from: Bachman & Hügi, 2004, Die Pfahlbauer/Les Lacustres: 150 Objekte erzählen 150 Geschichten / 150 objets racontent 150 histoires, p. 125

Sickle from Egolzwil, canton Lucerne, Switzerland; ca. 38000 BC. Ash wood, birch tar and flint. The hook at the end of the sickle (right) supposedly was used to collect a bunch of stems which can be grabbed with the free hand and then be cut with the sickle blade.
Figure adapted from: Bachman & Hügi, 2004, Die Pfahlbauer/Les Lacustres: 150 Objekte erzählen 150 Geschichten / 150 objets racontent 150 histoires, p. 125

P.S. I thought I would not bother you with references to scientific literature this time. Many can be found on hazelnut_relations. But do get in touch if you have questions.

Reader of Traces – archaeology is documentation

Leading excavations, especially on rescue excavations with a good amount of financial and time pressure, you become part of a machine that has an incredible energy. You are dealing with builders, people from the local authorities, specialists like archaeobotanists, as well as with your own team of diggers, drawers, photographers and the back office. A relentless, exhausting, but also very energising rhythmical sequence of digging, discovery and documentation drives you and becomes an integral part of the process of understanding and interpretation.

However, for the first time in 16 years, I think, I am not digging at all this summer. I am doing experiments for my PhD research . The animation in this post calls use wear analysts `Spurenleser´/`Tracéologue´, or Reader of Traces. The film also shows that experimental use of replica tools is part of many use wear studies.

Photo of an experimentally produced blade (radiolarite), made to act as a reminder to myself of the way it looked before I used it.

Photo of an experimentally produced retouched blade (radiolarite), made to act as a reminder to myself of the way it looked before I used it.

My experiments are specifically aimed at reproducing microscopic use wear traces on replica tools. These then become a reference collection for the actual use wear analysis of Late Mesolithic tools. I am finding the experiments quite time intensive, not so much the experiments themselves, but all the documentation that is part of the process. The experiments are documented in forms, photos, notes and descriptions and even film. Some of this documentation is part of the research process, at other times it is for future publication and some of it is just to remind myself later of exactly what I did and how, as is the case with the photo above. I seem to have underestimated these many steps of documentation somewhat, but routine is kicking in now and it is time I show my loyal readers a few photos of the experiments and its documentation.

An experimentally made scraper being used on hazel wood.

An experimentally made scraper being used to work hazel wood.

Whether in the field or in the lab: archaeology is documentation! But not next week. Archaeologists too need a vacation sometimes!

Microscopic photo of an experimentally produced scraper. 30x; made with a Keyence digital Microscope.

Microscopic (30x) photo of an experimentally produced and used scraper. Made with a Keyence digital Microscope.

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.


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:

The lab II: Is that a bit of dead sheepskin on your distal end?

After a short break, which I mainly spend writing the Hospental-Moos lithics report and flintknapping a bit, I am back at the microscope again. I now feel quite confident that I seem to have found my way around the machine and to have found, at least for now, my favourite settings. That is, the ones that seem best for my work. The photo shown here is a composite, The microscope takes a large number of photos, each with a different focus and combines them into a single picture with a large depth of field. This make it possible to produce the level of detail shown here.

The photo shows the distal, steeply retouched dorsal end of a scraper. That is lithic analyst speak for the scraper’s working edge, the bit that actually touches the material it is used to work. In this case that was dry sheepskin. And that is exactly what the white stuff atached to the stone is: sheepskin residue. At the Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche (Switzerland) many very small scrapers were found and this scraper is pretty much an experimental replica of some of those scrapers.

Experimental hergestellter Kratzer aus Radiolarit. Kratzer wie dieses wurden in der Spätmesolithischen Fundstelle Arconciel/La Souche (Schweiz) gefunden.

Experimental hergestellter Kratzer aus Radiolarit. In der spätmesolithischen Fundstelle Arconciel/La Souche (Schweiz) wurden vielen solchen Kratzer gefunden. Bild gemacht mit einem Digitalmikroskop.
Experimental radiolarite scraper. At the Late Mesolithic site Arconciel/La Souche (Switzerland) many scrapers like this were found. Composite photo made with a digital microscope.

During its experimental life (More information and photos here), this radiolarite scraper was on of seven which we used hafted (in a wooden handle, using birchtar and sinue) or unhafted to scrape sheep- and goatskin. Now taken out of its haft and cleaned, it is part of the reference collection for my use wear project,

Experimental archaeology in a museum – an exhibition review

«Savoir-faire – Mit Kopf und Hand, die experimentelle Archäologie erzählt»
Museum Schwab – 28.05.2011 -26.02.2012

A man with a long grey ponytail, dressed in yellowish leather clothes assembles a stone axe. A little later we see him stalk through the forest with a hafted stone axe in hand, looking for a victim. After a while he finds an average sized, living tree. Within a few minutes he has the tree down.
You wonder why he has to chop down a living, healthy tree. But that is not the main point here. This stereotypical scene of experimental archaeology is shown on a big screen in the entrance hall of the Museum Schwab in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. This small archaeological museum shows a small selection of excellent finds from the rich archaeology of the region of the Lake of Biel.

Museum Schwab. Biel, Schweiz

Museum Schwab. Biel, Switzerland

The ground floor, however, is reserved for temporary exhibitions. Until Feb. 26th 2012 one can still visit the exhibition «Savoir-Faire», on experimental archaeology. So what does the exhibition show us? I believe the film scenes I described above are a little unfortunate. Throughout the exhibition one does not get to see many experimental archaeologists working, neither in photos not in film. To then start with such a stereotype, which also probably is not true for many exp. archaeologists, is a shame. Especially, as it seems that the rest of the exhibition and also the accompanying booklet tries to give us a very different impression. L. Marquis, the museum’s director, writes in the introduction of the exhibition booklet: “Experimental archaeology asks, using a practical method, about the function and production methods of archaeological finds, asks about the `how´.” (my trans.)

The first half of the exhibition is very hands-on. On a number of low tables examples of materials used to produce various archaeological artefact categories are presented: wooden throwing sticks and spears, pottery, bows and arrows, chipped stone artefacts and polished stone artefacts etc. Considering the location of the Museum within the Three-lake –region, it is not surprising many examples come from the archaeology of the lake side villages. The material samples can all be handled. Each category is accompanied by a leaflet in which the production of the artefact category is described and an example is given of how experimental archaeology has contributed to our understanding of them. Furthermore, examples of each of the artefact categories are presented in nearby a glass case. There is no definite order in which to view the small exhibition and that is fine, really. Especially, if there are many visitors it might be nice to be able to manoeuvre freely around the room. The design is very clean and easily `read´. The visitor is not bombarded with images and text and the designers worked with few colours.

A second room is largely taken up by two `tableaux vivant´. Continue reading

Radiolarite and spring in the Fribourger Prealps

A number of raw materials were used for the production of chipped stone artefacts at the site of Arconciel/La Souche, Kt. Fribourg, Switzerland. Some of you might already know that I am doing a use wear analysis of the finds from the Late and Final Mesolithic abri for my PhD.

Of course, I am curious to see these places and the sources of the raw material of the archaeological artefacts. And it is spring! Here on the Swiss plateau the snow is gone, and in the Alps much has already melted as well. So, with a trusted companion I set out on an expedition to go and find the radiolarite outcrops in the Fribourger Prealps on the Brendelspitz. As guides we had the article by Braillard etal 2003 and the great little book Geologischer Pfad Gastlosen by Braillard and Rebetez (2010) (thank you Luc!).  What these, sadly, did not tell us, was that we underestimated Lady Winter’s resilience and had to fight through leg-deep snow at times. And no, we did not bring snowshoes… By then, we were too foolhardy and just had to get up there!

Radiolarite Braillard etal2003 web

various types of radiolarite, from Braillard etal 2003

The main raw materials used at the site during the Mesolithic are “Ölquartzite”, radiolarite and flint (Braillard, Menoud et al. 2003; Mauvilly 2005; Mauvilly, McCullough et al. 2008). Most of these raw materials are to be found at a not too great distance from the site of Arconciel/La Souche. The closest source would have been the Sarine riverbed. Radiolarite, “Ölquartzite” and some types of flint can be found there. In the Jura Mountains further flint sources are known. Sources of “Olquatzite” and radiolarite are known in the Fribourger Prealps, the range of middle high Alpine mountains in the southern parts of the canton, and in the neighbouring areas of the Bernese Oberland[1]. But I will focuss only on the radiolarite in this post. Continue reading