Category Archives: Arconciel/La Souche

Trapèzes, fléchettes et autres pointes – a new publication!

« Trapèzes, fléchettes et autres pointes : évolution des armatures du second Mésolithique au Néolithique ancien entre Jura et Préalpes suisses. » was just published as part of a volume full of French, Belgian and Swiss Mesolithic goodies. It has it all: lithic technology, typology and use-wear. Enjoy your reading!

You can buy the book here. Or surely, your preferred local bookshop will be able to organise it for you as well.

Bassin (L.), Cornelissen (M.), Jakob (B.), Mauvilly (M.) 219 – Trapèzes, fléchettes et autres pointes : évolution des armatures du second Mésolithique au Néolithique ancien entre Jura et Préalpes suisses. In : Arbogast (R.-M.), Griselin (S.), Jeunesse (C.), Séara (F.) (dir.) – Le second Mésolithique des Alpes à l’Atlantique (7e – 5e  millénaire). Table ronde internationale, Strasbourg, les 3 et 4 novembre 2015 , Strasbourg, 11-37 (Mémoires d’Archéologie du Grand-Est 3).


The rich lithic assemblages from the sites Arconciel/La Souche and Onnens/Praz Berthoud provide new insights into the end of the Mesolithic in western Switzerland. The continuous stratigra-phic sequence at the rock-shelter of Arconciel/La Souche (canton of Fribourg) was excavated between 2003-2012. It evidences the repeated occupation of the site between 7100-4800 BC. The numerous projectile points found here show the typological development of this artefact category throughout its occupation. This development is characterised by the appearance of Late Mesolithic blade and trapeze industries just before the middle of the 7th Millennium BC and a continuing tradition of production into the 5th Millennium BC. Macro- and microscopic use wear analysis of a sample of artefacts allows the discussion of the function of artefacts which are habitually called projectile points. These analyses indicate multiple uses of the artefacts throughout the site’s occupation and show how those artefacts used as projectile points were probably hafted. Excavated between 1997-2004, open-air site Onnens/Praz-Berthoud (canton of Vaud) is another rare example of a recently excavated site dating to the end of the Mesolithic on the Plateau Suisse. In addition to a comparable corpus of Late Mesolithic projectile points, an assemblage of Early Neolithic, 5th Millennium lithic artefacts extends the chronological range offered by Arconciel/La Souche. Although there are small differences between the projectile point assemblages from the two studied sites, there are many parallels as well. This is especially true for the symmetric and rectangularly shaped trapezes and some of the so-called “evolved” points. A diversification of shapes can be observed towards the end of the Mesolithic. This diversification is accompanied by an increasingly asymmetric trapezes and the appearance of small, asymmetric points with concave bases, called “evolved” points or “fléchettes”. With time these small points show ever increasing inverse and invasive retouch, slowly developing the characteristics of Early Neolithic points. The comparative study of two assemblages of projectile points provides new insights into the typological characteristics and their developments throughout the End of Mesolithic and the beginning of the Neolithic north of the Alps. This study increases our knowledges of the Late Mesolithic of the Swiss Plateau, while the archaeology of the following period, esp. that between 4800 and 4500 BC remains difficult to grasp here. Little comparative material is momentarily available for the rare material from this period from Onnens/Praz Berthoud.


Avec chacun de riches séries lithiques, les deux sites d’Arconciel/La Souche et d’Onnens/Praz Berthoud viennent compléter nos connaissances de la fin du Mésolithique en Suisse occidentale. L’abri sous roche d’Arconciel/La Souche (canton de Fribourg) a comme principale caractéristique une stratigraphie conséquente, avec des phases d’occupation qui se succèdent chronologiquement presque sans interruption de 7100 à 4800 av. J.-C. Il livre également une série importante d’armatures dont l’évolution typologique jalonne le remplissage de l’abri. En plus d’un corpus comparable du second Mésolithique, le site de plein air d’Onnens/Praz Berthoud (canton de Vaud) vient quant à lui apporter un assemblage de pièces qui sont datées dans la continuité au cours des quelques siècles postérieurs à 4800 av. J.-C. L’observation des séries de ces deux sites apporte des élé-ents de caractérisation typologique pour la fin du Mésolithique au nord des Alpes. En plus de cette approche typologique, la fonction de ces pièces définies comme armatures est également questionnée avec l’analyse tracéologique de quelques artefacts d’Arconciel/La Souche. Les résultats de ces observations conjointes mettent en évidence la diversité des armatures de la fin du Mésolithique avec une évolution des trapèzes qui deviennent de plus en plus asymétriques, parallèlement à l’apparition de petites pointes dites « évoluées » (fléchettes, pointes asymétriques à base concave) tendant vers des pièces davantage recouvertes de retouches rasantes, jusqu’à celles caractéristiques … (auch auf Deutsch unten) Continue reading

The alpine Mesolithic and the scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche. Oh, and much much more!

Way back in 2014 Laure Bassin and I presented the first results of our Gestures of TransitionsGestures of Transitions project at the MesoLife conference in Selva di Cadore in the beautiful Dolomites. Now these results have been published in a new volume of Preistoria Alpina. We could increase our results beyond those presented in the poster then and are pleased to be able to show a nice summary of our study of the scrapers from the Late Mesolithic layers at Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland.


Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. Illustration: SAEF/AAFR

Scrapers are special at this site. Not only are many extremely small, an extraordinary large proportion of tools found at Arconciel/La Souche, over 50% of tools, were scrapers. So, curious about what we found out about these seemingly so insignificant little tools? You can download the paper here:

Cornelissen, M. and Bassin, L., 2016. Alpine raw materials and the production and use of scrapers at the Swiss Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche, Preistoria Alpina 48, pp. 11-19

The well stratified rock shelter site of Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland was repeatedly occupied between 7100 and 4900 cal BC. It lies in the Sarine river valley at the foot of the Prealps. This paper presents the first preliminary results of the study of the scrapers from this site. Of the chipped stone tool categories, scrapers are the most numerous found at Arconciel/La Souche. A combined technological and microscopic use wear study of the scrapers from three assemblages (ensemble
3, 4 and 5) has allowed us to examine the use and production of scrapers as well as how production and use relate to the various raw materials utilised at Arconciel/La Souche. We were able to show that although scraper morphology remained stable over time, there was a significant change in the relationship between raw materials and scraper production as well as the use of scrapers.
This research will be expanded to include other assemblages and chipped stone artefact categories from Arconciel/La Souche, but has already provided important new insights into artefact use-life in the still relatively poorly understood millennium leading up to the end of the Mesolithic on the Swiss Plateau and the nearby Prealps.

But there is even more! Preistoria Alpina has changed its set-up. The journal is now only available online and open-access. All posters from the MesoLife conference were published in this volume and are available! The papers presented one those hot summer days in the Dolomites have recently been published in volume 423 of Quaternary International. (With a little something about recent Mesolithic finds in the Swiss Alps by Thomas Reitmaier and myself.) That makes an amazing total of 48 articles on alpine Mesolithic!


Late Mesolihtic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. Illustration: SAEF/AAFR

These two volume show how vibrant the research of the Mesolithic in alpine and mountainous enviroments has become of late and will undoubtly be shown to be valuable additions to our knowledge of the Mesolithic in Europe. Hats off to the MesoLife organisers and editors of these two volumes!


The “Gestures of Transition” circus is touring again!

So, have you been cooking? What do you cook on a busy day? Right, back to business. This Wednesday Laure Bassin and I will be talking (in German) about the “Gestures of Transitions” project a the Universität Zürich. An hour of Mesolithic, artefact biographies, use wear, chaînes opératoires, Arconciel/La Souche, Lutter/St-Joseph; the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Switzerland from a different point of view. So, if you are anywhere near Zürich on wednesday, do look in. We look forward to seeing you!

Wed. 23rd Nov. 2016. 18:15   –  Universität Zürich, ARCH, FB Prähistorische Archäologie, Karl-Schmid-Str. 4 – Raum KO2-F-153

Steingeschichten. Das Endmesolithikum zwischen Voralpen und Jura, geschrieben von den letzten Jäger- und Sammler/innen

MA Laure Bassin (Université de Neuchâtel), Marcel Cornelissen, MA (Universität Zürich)
Im Rahmen des «Gestures of Transitions»-Projektes wird der Übergang  Mesolithikum-Neolithikum am Nordrand der Alpen untersucht. Grundstein dieser Untersuchung ist eine innovative, kombinierte Analyse der Technologie, der chaȋnes opératoires sowie der makro- und mikroskopischen Gebrauchsspuren an den geschlagenen Steinartefakten aus gut stratifizierten Fundensemble von Arconciel/La
Souche (Kt. Freiburg) und Lutter/St. Joseph (Elsass, Frankreich) aus dem 7./6. Jt. v. Chr.). Das Projekt untersucht ob und wie sich die tiefgreifenden sozialen und wirtschaftlichen Änderungen am Übergang zum Neolithikum in der Herstellung und im Gebrauch der Artefakte wiederspiegeln. Die Entwicklung in den Gesten der Werkzeugherstellung und des Gebrauchs lässt neues Licht auf die letzten Jäger- und Sammler/innen im peri-alpinen Europa werfen.

Transforming prehistoric gestures into present day objects. Turning your (PhD-)research into postcards.

Like many archaeologists, I spend my days in a lab or at a desk. I study microscopic traces of use on Late Mesolithic and very early Neolithic stone artefacts to try to find out what these tools were actually used for all those thousands of years ago. By understanding the use of various types of tools we hope to understand the lives and activities on the sites they were found (Arconciel/La Souche and Lutter/St. Joseph) and in Switzerland/Western France at the time of the last hunter-gatherers and the first farmers here. This period, roughly 6500 to 4800 BC, is a fascinating period, during which many things, not least the economy, changes. That is the story I wanted to tell and I wanted to do this in a light-hearted and accessible way. At the same time I wanted to avoid the typical channels of public outreach. But I did want to show the beauty of the process of doing archaeology. This fascination for the archaeology of hunter-fisher-gatherer societies and the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic of the early Holocene together with the wonder of seeing the activities and lives of people who lived such different lives from us in these small stone artefacts were the main reason behind the decision to do something with all the photos I am taking at the microscope.

We archaeologists often tell stories about the sites and objects we study after we have finished excavating and have done with all our analyses. Often the stories we tell are presented as complete and certain, while actually they are often complex and full of ambiguity and are seldom truly finished. We also show reconstructions or we invite the public to visit our excavations, the archetypical activity of archaeologists, and tell stories about and show photos from our digs in more or less exotic localities. But we rarely show the processes and the work we spend most of our time on: Our work in labs, in offices in dark basements of archaeological institutes, hot dighouses or even cold office containers on excavation sites. I hope to show some of these processes of making sense of the archaeological remains and knowledge creation through these postcards. Our, my daily work and the beautiful and fascinating things and objects this work creates and which are seldom seen by anyone.

Most visual depictions by archaeologists either try to show realistic or natural representations of archaeological remains, objects or archaeological deposits or they try to tell a story by creating visual reconstructions. Others are more picturesque and depict the archaeology in the context of the other, the exotic. A fourth category of archaeological visualisations are ethnographic in nature. Especially the first three types of images are usually published in scientific archaeological publications and reports. If the process of doing archaeology is recorded, it is often in the form of the ethnography of archaeology. With these postcards I hope to document the process of archaeology in a differing way. Furthermore, by publishing them on postcards, these photos are able to leave the elitist and restricted realm of scientific publication and other environments in which archaeology can usual be found, be it museums or public monuments or websites. The postcards feature microscopic photos of use wear traces and thus transform the gestures of people in the distant past into material haptic objects in the everyday lives of people in the twenty-first century.

Further inspirations for this little postcards project are the latent undercurrent of and recent call for more alternative and punk-ethos in certain circles in the archaeological community and the stones of the Murgtal Steingarten-project and Mail Art activities of concept artist H.R. Fricker. They stimulated me in the first place to produce something relatively inexpensive and easy to produce (of course, this would not have been possible without the great Ben Peyer of Version1!), common objects, but also something that could feature in everyday life and does not require huge effort on the part of the beholder. Postcards fitted the bill. On the one hand they are collectable objects, on the other they are mundane, everyday objects.

The postcards me and Ben made certainly don’t follow the visual vocabulary of the punk-tradition, but using such mundane objects for publicising my PhD-research and injecting them into everyday life, they might refer to some extend to the punk-ethos. Not unlike the visual output of punk culture, Mail-Artists in the second half of the 20th century made a lot of use of collage and montage techniques as well as stamps and other media and also had a strong d-i-y tradition. Furthermore, I hope the postcards also refer in a tongue-in-cheek manner to the Mail-Art movement and the way scientists in the past – before scientific journals became so common – spread and discussed their scientific findings by correspondence and letters.

Both the punk and the Mail Art movements were also about creating and maintaining communities at various scales. Lately, a lot of exchange between archaeologists and scientists in general takes place in the digital world, via email, social media, blogs, podcasts and platform such as researchgate. With these postcards I would like to extend these lively conversations into the physical world while at the same time, using digital channels to spread them. And last, I still think it is great to receive a postcard in the post and love sending them.

So, if you want to know how to receive a postcards, have a look here. It would be great to hear from you!

I decided not to use references in this text, but the following publications have inspired the production of the postcards and this text:
• Barthes, R., 1980, La chambre claire, Paris
• Edwards, E., 2002, Material beings: objecthood and ethnographic photographs, in Visual Studies, Vol. 17, 1
• H.R. Fricker > work in general more specifically the Steingarten Murgtal project
• Hamilakis, Y., Anagnostopoulos, A. and Ifantidis, F. (2009) Postcards from the edge of time: archaeology, photography, archaeological ethnography, in Public Archaeology, 8, (2-3), 283-309
Punk Archaeology
• Shanks, M. 1997, Photography and Archaeology, in Brian Molyneaux, B. (ed), The Cultural Life of Images: Visual representation in Archaeology
• Those two great blogs by Colleen Morgan – Middle Savagery and Bill Caraher – The archaeology of the mediterranean world


Hafting microliths II – North and south of the Alps

Some things change, some things stay the same. The latter is true for archaeologists as well. And so, for us microliths are still the superstars of the Mesolithic; the fascination they hold as arrowheads of the intrepid Mesolithic hunter, and their use to archaeologists as a finds group that can help them (relatively) date sites or occupational phases of sites. Archaeologists do this by comparing their form and how they are made with those found on sites with known absolute dates, often obtained through radiocarbon dating. Some time ago, it became apparent to me that I knew only of very few microliths from the Alps with evidence of how they were used. They are typically seen as arrowheads, but is that really true? Don’t you agree they, for example, also resemble the blades of Stanley/Japanese/utility knives?

Since then, I have learned about of a group of microliths from the Gaban rock-shelter in the Adige valley, northern Italy. And I have been able to study the microliths from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland as well. The artefacts from both sites tell us a lot about how these enigmatic microliths were used all those thousands of years ago. The tools from the Gaban rock-shelter were already studied some years ago by E. Cristiani and colleagues (2009) using two main methods, both involving microscopy. First, they were able to use macroscopic and microscopic traces of wear caused by the tools’ use to determine that the majority of the microliths at Gaban, these are so called trapezes, were used as projectile points. Secondly, the researchers recognised residues on them and they interpreted these as elements of the mastics used to fix the flint tools in the arrow shafts. Two kinds of residues were recognised. A brown residue turned out to be a mixture of bitumen, probably birch tar, and beeswax. The other, red residue turned out to be ochre. The location of theses residues on the tools seems to show how the tools are fixed into the arrow shafts (Cristiani et al, 2009).


Residue distribution and reconstructions of the use of the trapezes. A) Trapeze position as an element of a composite arrowhead. B) Use of the trapeze on a single distal point. From Cristiani et al., 2009 Fig. 8 and 10.

The work on the microliths from Arconciel/La Souche is not yet completely finished, but it is already clear that both strands of evidence for the use of the artefacts from the Riparo Gaban are also present at microliths from Arconciel. Arconciel/La Souche lies at the foot of the Prealps, north of the Alps. Not exactly near the Dolomites. Their date is similar, though, and we know similar looking microliths were produced in much of Europe during the end of the Mesolithic. It is thus interesting to compare the findings of the research into the use of the microliths from Gaban and Arconciel. And indeed a number, but not all of the microliths from Arconciel/la Souche have been used as arrowheads as well, but apparently not in exactly the same way as the arrowheads from Gaban in Northern Italy. The way they were fixed in arrow shafts also differs.

But many questions about the exact use and function of this type of tools are still open. What did people in the Mesolithic hunt with these arrows? And how? And why do some of the microliths show they were used for other tasks, even though they seem to look exactly the same as those used as arrowheads? And why does it differ so much between sites? And if they are used differently, can we still use these tools to date sites? I guess, our growing knowledge of the role microliths played in the lives of hunter-fisher-gatherers living in central Europe eight thousand years ago will probably only increase our fascination with them!

Cristiani, E., Pedrotti, A., & Gialanella, S. (2009). Tradition and innovation between the Mesolithic and early Neolithic in the Adige Valley (northeast Italy). New data from a functional analysis of trapezes from the Gaban rock-shelter Documenta Praehistorica, 36 DOI: 10.4312/dp.36.12

The “Gestures of Transition” circus tours Switzerland

It’s been a busy few weeks for Laure, my project partner, and me. We’ve been doing a bit of a tour of Switzerland, presenting and discussing our research. Back in February I did a so-called “lightning talk” (6 min) on Late Mesolithic scrapers at a colloquium for PhD candidates in Archaeology of the Universities of Basel, Berne and Zürich in Basel. It’s an interesting format, forcing you to focus on what is essential in your research. It provides a nice challenge for the speaker in that she/he has to really think about what are the most important points she/he wants to get across to her/his audience and how to do so. As a listener they are pleasant to listen to, as they are meant to have a good narrative, focuss on a single or few main points and leave out lots of secondary material. I think a lot of conferences/round tables etc. would benefit from having at least some presentations being held in some form of short presentation.
Last week, those researchers involved in the post-excavation analyses of Arconciel/La Souche met in Fribourg to share their first results and discuss how to continue. We were able to see a selection of finds, such as the bone and antler tools and Laure showed us briefly how she is dealing with 25,000 lithic artefacts. It’s nice to see, that besides Laure’s and my work on the lithic artefacts, other work is also getting underway. Patricia Vandorpe is studying the archaeobotanical macro-remains. Luc Braillard has been studying the sedimentological thinslides, providing new evidence on sediment ontology in the rock-shelter. And Aurelie Guidez is getting the first interesting results on the faunal remains from the younger occupation at Arconciel/La Souche.

After a fruitful meeting in Zürich on Wednesday with Prof. Ph. Della Casa, project PI and one of my PhD supervisors, Laure and went to present our methodology and first results to her colleagues at the Université de Neuchâtel. I had been to Neuchâtel a few times before, but had always had bad weather. So, not only have I come back from Neuchâtel with happy memories of interesting discussions, but I am also very chuffed to have finally seen the beautiful Lac de Neuchâtel and the view of the Alps from there!

View over the Lac de Neuchatel towards teh Swiss Alps.

View over the Lac de Neuchatel towards the Swiss Alps.

So, thanks to everyone we met, who listened to and discussed with us and for the invitations! But, after meeting so many colleagues all over Switzerland and after all the stimulating discussions, I have to say I am keen to once again get on with my research and get writing again!

Going down the Danube – Meso2015

Last week we received confirmation our abstract for a paper at the 9th International Conference on the Mesolithic in Europe (Belgrade, sept 2015) has been accepted. The program is now online as well. See you in Belgrade!

Late Mesolithic artefact biographies. Integrating technological and use wear analyses of the chipped stone artefacts from Arconciel/La Souche (CH) and Lutter/St-Joseph (F).

This paper presents the results of our combined technological and microscopic use wear studies of the chipped stone assemblages from two multi-occupational sites dating between 7000 and 5000 BC located north of the Swiss Alps.
These sites, Arconciel/La Souche (CH) and Lutter/St-Joseph (F), are situated in the Sarine Valley at the foot of the Swiss Prealps and in the French Jura mountains respectively. Recently excavated and well-stratified, they allow new insights into the still relatively poorly understood developments at the end of the Mesolithic on the Swiss Plateau. The sites are located within different geographical and archaeological contexts. Whereas Lutter/St-Joseph is situated on the edge of the known LBK occupation of the Alsace and southern Germany, Arconciel/La Souche is located on the Swiss Plateau, between influences from the Rhone and Rhine valleys.
The integration of these two methodological approaches leads to an increased and more comprehensive understanding of artefact biographies, of the development of production techniques and artefact use, during the end of the Mesolithic and the transition to farming in the research area. It also allows further interpretation of the Mesolithic occupation and the transition to the Neolithic on the Swiss Plateau in general.

Marcel Cornelissen, MA
Universität Zürich
Insititut für Archäologie, Fachbereich Prähistorische Archäologie

Laure Bassin, MA
Université de Neuchâtel
Chaire d’archéologie pré- et protohistorique

Day of Archaeology 2014

Eingebetteter Bild-Link

Last Friday, the 11th of July, was the annual Day of Archaeology! It is when we archaeologists creep out of our offices, labs, archives and trenches and share with you what our day, a normal Friday in July, looks like. Want to know what archaeologists do all day? Go and have a look at the Day of Archaeology website, or follow the day of archaeology on twitter with hashtag #dayofarch.

Here you can read about my Day of Archaeology 2014. However, do check out the many other contributions as well, especially this contribution: the archaeology of early tourism in the Swiss Alps.

MesoLife – Scrapers, lithic technology and use wear and the Mesolithic of the Swiss Alps

What better way to celebrate the beginning of summer, than to spend a few days relishing the combined joys of the Alps with the Mesolithic? I will be deep in the Dolomites this week, at the MesoLife conference in the Museo Vittorino Cazzetta, Italy. Together with Laure Bassin I have made a poster with some of the first combined results of our PhD research. We have looked at the technological aspects and the microscopic use wear of scrapers from the Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche. Below you find the abstract and you can download a pdf of the poster.

Microscopic use wear traces on three Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, CH. Left to right: Radiolarite, fine-grained quartzite and flint.

Microscopic use wear traces on three Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, CH. Left to right: Radiolarite, fine-grained quartzite and flint.

Together with Thomas Reitmaier I will also present a talk summarising the recent work and new Mesolithic finds in the alpine parts of southeastern Switzerland. Either one of us was involved in almost all of the new discoveries. This is quite something, as less than a decade ago hardly any sites were known here. Do have a look at the abstract at the end of the post. We hope to get a synthesis published sometime in the near future.

Alpine raw materials and the production and use of scrapers at the Swiss Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche
Due to their abundance, scrapers can be regarded as the typifying tool category of the site of Arconciel/La Souche, a rock shelter with a well stratified, multi-phased Late Mesolithic occupation (7000 – 5000 cal BC).
The site is located in the Sarine valley, on the edge of the Swiss Plateau at the foot of the Prealps. Much of the lithic assemblage is produced on raw material which originates from these nearby Prealps. The remainder of the artefacts are made from raw material brought here from further afield, e.g. the Jura mountains, the Geneva region and eastern France.
A large majority of the tools found at Arconciel/La Souche are scrapers (46% of the tool assemblage). Chaînes opératoires studies and microscopic use wear analysis are combined to investigate how the variety of local and non-local raw material relates to the production and use of the scrapers. As well as determining whether tool use might have varied according to raw material, these studies raise questions relating to the possibility of foreign techniques being imported along with the raw material. This will not only aid the interpretation of one of the most important Mesolithic sites in Switzerland, it might also provide insights into the developments at the end of the Mesolithic on the northern edge of the Swiss Alps.   –   Laure Bassin (Université du Neuchâtel) & Marcel Cornelissen (Universität Zürich)

Alpine raw materials and the production and use of scrapers at the Swiss Late Mesolithic site of Arconciel/La Souche (PDF)

Filling the gap – Recent Mesolithic discoveries in the Swiss Alps
Until less than a decade ago, it seemed that – unlike in the surrounding part of the Alps – no sites dating between the end of the LGM and the Middle Neolithic existed in the alpine regions of central and south-eastern Switzerland. A number of recent rescue excavations, research projects and single finds have now proven the presence of people in these parts of the Alps from the 9th Millennium cal BC onwards. The majority of the currently known sites date between 7500 and 6500 cal BC. Both open-air sites and rock shelters are represented. Many sites lie above the valley floor, in the upper subalpine or alpine zones, and on routes to minor as well as major passes.
Together with new palaeoenvironmental data, these archaeological finds allow us first insights into the nature of interaction of Mesolithic people in the south-eastern Swiss Alps with their social and natural environment and into their relationship with regions further afield. Furthermore, the finds allow us to think about future research into the early prehistory of the south-eastern Swiss Alps.   –   Marcel Cornelissen (Universität Zürich) & Dr. Thomas Reitmaier (Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden)


Visualising lithic use wear traces – photo stacking

It is not always immediately apparent to non-specialists what we – use wear analysts – do and see and how we can be certain of our observations. This is partially due to the imagery many use wear analysts produce. In a recent paper A. van Gijn (2013) reflects on the current state of the field of lithic microwear or use-wear analysis and points out a number of aspects of our work in which improvements are possible or even necessary. These, in my opinion rightly, include an increase in sample sizes (e.g. by scanning tools with a stereomicroscope before moving on to higher magnifications); more incorporation of ethnographic data; a standardisation of practise and nomenclature; embedding the use wear traces in the cultural biographies of artefacts and providing better quality imagery.

The basal end of a Mesolithic scraper from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland (quartzit au grain fin/Ölquarzit). Left a normal photo. Right a composite photo of the same part of the artefact. Taken with a Keyence Digital Microscope.

The basal end of a Mesolithic scraper from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland (quartzit au grain fin/Ölquarzit). Left a normal photo. Right a composite photo of the same part of the artefact. Taken with a Keyence Digital Microscope.

The last point can be achieved by photo-stacking through the use of specialist software or microscopes, such as the digital microscope I use, which are able to make composite photos. The image above shows what photo stacking or composite photos allows you to do.

One major drawback of the microwear approach is the lack of convincing visual evidence. The pictures generally shown at meetings are fuzzy and lack depth of field. Usually only a small part of the photograph is sharp, namely the spot of polish we want to address. Although insiders may usually see and recognize what is being discussed, it is little wonder that the general audience has no idea what it has to look at and remains rather skeptical. There is much to gain from improving the visualization of the microwear traces. – A. L. van Gijn (2013 – p. 3)

Typically, it is difficult to make microscopic photos of larger parts of artefacts that are in focus. Photo stacking, however, allows exactly this: an increased depth of field with much larger parts of the artefact shown in focus. This way not only the traces, but also their contexts can be visualised. I find this technique does not work very well in all situations or for all raw-materials or for all traces. Nonetheless, it makes our work more effective and it will surely allow us to communicate our methodology and findings much better not only to fellow specialists, but also to non-use wear specialist archaeologists and the general public.

Gijn, van A. (2013). Science and interpretation in microwear studies, Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI:

Sharing the joy of scrapers

Fribourg near the SAEF

Fribourg near the SAEF

Today I met up with my project partner Laure in Fribourg, to discuss our progress and collect another sample of chipped stone artefacts for use wear analyses. We do not work in the same place and do not see each other every day. So, it is always stimulating and encouraging and fun to meet up and exchange ideas and plans as well as problems and results.

30 000 chipped stone artefacts (8000 - 7500 years old) on a table

30 000 chipped stone artefacts (8000 – 7500 years old) on a table

At the moment we are both working on the Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. We are working towards a poster for the MesoLife conference this June and it is our aim to look at the relationship between production, use and raw material of the exceptionally many scrapers found at Arconciel/La Souche and how this develops towards the end of the Mesolithic. It was great to see that the method of our combined approaches will, as we hoped and planned, indeed bear fruit and comparing technology and typology with use will bring further insights into Late Mesolithic behaviour just North of the Alps.

Snapshot of the sample of Late Mesolithic scrapers (~6000-5500 BC) from Arconciel/La Souche I selected today

Snapshot of the sample of Late Mesolithic scrapers (~6000-5500 BC) from Arconciel/La Souche I selected today


Oh, and this is me playing with a fancy digital microscope. Thanks to the University of Fribourg for that!

Oh, and this is me playing with a fancy digital microscope. Thanks to the University of Fribourg for that!

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,

arconciel/la souche and the high and wild

tamisage, arconciel/la souche

tamisage. Microfauna, archaeobotanical macro remains as well as flint artefacts and worked and un-worked bones that might have been missed on site, are retrieved by slow and concentrated sorting of the sieving residues. All the earth removed from site is wet sieved by the Sarine river near the site of Arconciel/La Souche. August 2011

échafaudage, arconciel/la souche

échafaudage. To aid excavation, the site is caged in by scaffolding. It seems to create a distance between the twenty first century archaeologists and the site. It allows us to move around the site. However, only the excavators actually enter the site and even they do so while moving and sitting on boards suspended above the ground. So, for them the scaffolding not only separates the site from its surrounding but also separates them from the site, the archaeology. It seems a bit odd, as excavating is such a tactile activity, always in touch with the dirt and the archaeological remains.

These days the site overlooks a floodplain. The Sarine river flows perhaps 120m from the rock shelter. During the Early Atlantic it would have lain directly below the abri, perhaps also separating it, in a sense, from the outside world. August 2011

Besides, from August 20th our fieldwork in the Fimbertal, Jamtal and many more high and wild valleys continues. Join our alpine archaeological adventures again on the rückwege-blog