Follow this link to a map with a timeline which shows the dramatic retreat of the Untere Grindelwald gletscher.
Follow this link to a map with a timeline which shows the dramatic retreat of the Untere Grindelwald gletscher.
Whereas the #skiarchaeology I wrote about last, dealt with a site that can be seen from the slopes of the Crans-Montana ski resort, you pretty much ski over this collection of sites. The sites are located throughout the area that in winter is the Meiringen-Hasliberg ski-resort. And while the finds from the Schnidejoch are mostly prehistoric, the structures found here, at the Mägisalp, are most likely to date to the Middle Ages and (Early) post medieval times. Spread across this area, partly in the clouds on this photo, are the two highest Alps in the three-part “Alpwirtschaft”, or animal husbandry system, which is still in use here. How far back it dates, is difficult to say, but the earliest historical record dates to 1372 AD.
In summer cows enjoy the herb-rich mountian pastures here, moving up with the vegetation during the summer months. Some of the buildings still in use might have a history of many centuries. But there are also the ruined remains of their predecessors now, in winter, hidden by snow. Sadly, it is often difficult to date such sites, but they still provide us fascinating insights into the cultural history of the region and the Alps in general.
The buildings and ruins have been studied by Brigitte Andres as part of PhD research at the University of Zürich. If you are interested in more, it is worth having a look at these publications:
Andres, B., 2011, Gadmen, Wendenboden. Eine alpine Siedlungswüstung im Oberhasli, Archäologie Bern 2011. Jahrbuch des Archäologischen Dienstes des Kantons Bern, 48–53.
Andres, B., 2012, Alpine summer farms – upland animal husbandry and land use strategies in the Bernese Alps (Switzerland). In: W. Bebermeier, R. Hebenstreit, E. Kaiser uad J. Krause (eds.), Landscape Archaeology. Proceedings of the International Conference held in Berlin, 6th – 8th June 2012. eTopoi. Journal for Ancient Studies Special Volume 3, 279–283.
Andres, B., 2012, Hanglage mit Gletscherblick. Alpine Wüstungen im Oberhasli. Archäologie Bern. Jahrbuch des Archäologischen Dienstes des Kantons Bern, 2012, 220–236
Andres, B. und Walser, Chr., 2013, Drohnen in der alpinen Archäologie. Luftbildaufnahmen von Alpwüstungen im Oberhasli. In Jahrbuch des Archäologischen Dienstes des Kantons Bern, 2013, 107-109
Sand. Like the sand in a sand box. No stones, no clay nor silt, just beautiful yellow sand. My very first dig was in the southern Netherlands and the soil consisted solely of sand. And it was great! I then spend a number of years digging in sand and I guess, it became my first archaeological “home-soil”. I have since dug in many countries and even more soil types and let me tell you, digging is never faster as in sand. I am not saying there are no challenges in understanding the stratigraphy and archaeology, but it truly is very handy. So when I got a phone call if I wanted to do some test-trenching in a sandy area in Switzerland I was quite keen. When I heard it was in Gampelen, where a number of Mesolithic surface concentrations have been long known and one – Jänet 3 – has been excavated, I was sold!
I took a few months off from the big PhD and although we did not find much archaeology in the way of finds and structures, we did find some and we were also able to firmly establish the edge of the Lac de Neuchâtel here during the Mesolithic. Besides, it was very good to be able to take some distance from the PhD-work for a short while. The surface scatters in the vicinity of our test trenches we now know were, like Jänet 3, situated near small depressions on top of Aeolian sand dunes. In these depressions might have either stood open water or moors. From the stratigraphy it is now also clear that not all finds have been ploughed up yet and some of the archaeology might still be preserved in-situ. So, in a way it turned out to be more of a landscape archaeological project than your average Meso-dig. Since then dendro-archaeologist Matthias Bollinger and the WSL have also established that much of the sand of the Rundi dune must have been deposited in the 10th Millennium BC. Moreover, the wood samples we took during the test-trenching will help to extend the dendrochronological curve of the area a bit further towards the Late Glacial period. And all of that from that lovely sand in the Seeland!
It was photographer Heini Stucki who originally discovered these sites and he has been field walking here the past 30 odd years. The full test-trenching report has now been published and also includes the surface finds from the past decade. A short summery of the results was also published as a “Fundbericht” in the Annuaire d’Archaéologie Suisse 98, 2015.
And when you’re finished looking up the Gampelen report, do have a look at Heini Stucki’s website and his beautiful photos as well!
(With many thanks to the mighty Rolf W.!)
Cornelissen, M., 2015, Gampelen, Rundi und Jänet. Eine mesolithische Dünenlandschaft am Neuenburgersee. In Archäologie Bern / Archéologie bernoise. Jahrbuch des Archäologischen Dienstes des Kantons Bern 2015 / Annuaire du Service archéologique du canton de Berne 2015. Bern, Arch. Dienst Kanton Bern. Pp. 64-67. ISBN 978-3-907663-48-6. (Zu beziehen in Buchhandlungen oder bei Verlag RubMedia, Tel. 031 380 14 80.)
Cornelissen, M., 2015, Gampelen BE, Rundi. Annuaire d’Archéologie Suisse 98. Pp. 176-7.
Nielsen, E., 1991, Gampelen – Jänet 3. Eine mesolithische siedlungsstelle im westlichen Seeland. Bern, Staatlicher Lehrmittelverlag.
Perhaps October and November are the most difficult months for archaeologists working in the Alps. The summer is over, the first snow already covers the landscape above 1500/1800 masl, so fieldwork is done for the year. To fill this emptiness inside the alpine archaeologist might go skiing, or snowshoe hiking, or ice climbing. However, in all but a few ski resorts, pistes are not open yet. And there is usually to little snow for off-piste skiing and waterfalls are not yet frozen. So, what to do with yourself during these months? Well, you clean your boots, oil your trowel, wait for the results of the radiocarbon samples you have sent to come back, wax your skis. But it just is not enough, is it?
Well, if you are lucky enough – as I am – to live in Berne, Switzerland you might, going about your daily business, come across some of the electrical control cabinets with wonderful mountains scenes painted on them. You can stare at these for a while.
These cabinets were painted in 2013 by Taiwanese artist Jui-Chin Chiu, or Master Chiu. He is one of the advertisement poster painters the Taiwanese Electricity provider Taipower commissions to decorate electrical control cabinets in Taipei and other cities. In 2013 the Alpines Museum invited Master Chiu to come and brighten up the city of Bern a little.
If you do not live in Bern or if this just is not archaeological enough, there is another remedy. Since last summer I act as Alpine Archaeological Correspondent for the The European Archaeologist, the digital newsletter of the European Archaeological Society (pdf). The TEA is send out to EAA-members four times per year. However, it is also accessible for everyone else on the web. There are five regional correspondents who provide archaeological news from the region they work in. Do go and have a look for the latest from European Alpine Archaeology, from the Benelux, Finland, France or Iberia. The news is very varied. It ranges from new publications, exhibitions, portraits of archaeological personalities, conferences and ongoing projects.
We need your help, though! If there are any publications, projects, exhibitions or anything else you would like your European colleagues and the rest of the world to know about, do get in touch with me or the other correspondents! Language should not really be a problem. You find contact details for all of us on our reports. You can also find me here. I and the other correspondents are always happy to hear from you!
Oh, and if that is not enough Alpine Archaeology to get you through these months: follow the Alpine Archaeology Facebook-page!
On the road to the Vorderrheinvalley we stopped at the Grimseltor, Innertkirchen. In November 1946 a US Dakota DC-3 crashed in bad weather on the Gauliglacier. Parts of the plane reappeared in 2012. These parts had moved 3350m with the ice in that time. The remains found then were recovered and documented by the Swiss Army and the Archaeological Service, Canton Berne. Tomorrow we truely start with our survey in the Oberalppass area.
In the Swiss national newspaper NZZ, Urs Hafner wrote an eloquent short but critical review of the current Pile dwelling-exhibition in the Bernisches Historisches Museum titled `Historische Phantasie´ (in German). His criticism focuses on the little attention the Neolithisation process gets in the exhibition and the large panels showing scenes of daily live in Neolithic and Bronze Age Pile dwelling villages. (My review can be found here.)
First, it should be said that by the time of the oldest known Swiss pile dwellings (~4300 BC), the processes of Neolithisation in Switzerland and surrounding areas can be considered concluded (`Neolithic Revolution´ is by archaeologists today seen as an antiquated term). Already 1000 years before the first lake side villages sedentary farmers were living in regions north of the Alps, including Switzerland (e.g. at Gächlingen, Schaffhausen, Bottmingen/Bäumliackerstrasse, Basel and Herznach-Unterdorf, Aargau).
Hafner’s main criticism is the projection of our believes and subjective interpretations on aspects of the lives of past peoples. He wonders whether we know how houses were furnished and whether we actually know if people had chairs and tables in their houses or not. Actually, I believe it can be assumed we do know. As the exhibition shows the preservation at these sites is of such quality that if such items of furniture were common, we would have found them. We also know there were fireplaces in the houses, we know which artefacts were found where within a settlement, so also whether that was within houses or not. We can often tell how certain artefacts were used and what people ate. This amazing range of archaeological evidence allows us many unexpected insights into the daily lives of prehistoric people.
Lastly, archaeology is a science which studies the lives of past people through their material remains. And although we can never assume to be objective – we archaeologists are too much part of our own culture – we have a large and ever-increasing knowledge and understanding of prehistoric people, not in the least because of advances in other scientific subjects with which we cooperate, such as physical anthropology and palaeoenvironmental sciences. But yes, some of our interpretations are just that, interpretations. That is our job as archaeologists, to collect the archaeological evidence using up-to-date scientific methods, to subsequently interpret this evidence to our best ability and share our findings with the public. It goes without saying, we do this from our own position in the world. But doing so we also incorporate the current knowledge base of the discussed period as well as others, here in Switzerland and beyond. Moreover, this is a cumulative knowledge, gathered by scientists throughout the past few hundred years.
The panels in the exhibition show what we know about the people living on the lakes between 4300-800 BC resulting from the described scientific processes and the most likely interpretation of this knowledge. And that there is some fiction in them – as there is in the paintings by Anker albeit far, far more – should be clear to visitors. As archaeologists we use such visualisations to show what we know about (pre-)historic life. The medium dictates that this is impossible without including some fiction, in the same way a historical novel does, although less of course. So, should we make the general public read scientific reports instead? Stop making reconstruction visuals? Stop writing historical novels or cartoons and designing exhibitions? Or provide an accompanying books which are to be read before visiting the exhibition? I think not.
Archaeology and visual representation have a long history together. This includes photography and drawing. Both are an integral part of the archaeological process, drawing arguably a bit more. Drawing is deeply integrated in the archaeological processes of recovery, understanding and interpretation. This already starts during the excavation and continues afterwards. Producing field plans, phase plans and finds drawings help the archaeologist understand the evidence from the past (Wickstead 2008). Scenic reconstructions are a further step in this process. When making a new scenic interpretation of the finds from the Iron Age archaeology at the salt mines of Hallstatt, Rescheiter et al (2013) have written a scientific text to accompany it and explain their decisions on what to show and why. (There exists an extensive literature on the visualisation of archaeology which cannot all be dealt with within the space of a blog post). This will be interesting for fellow scientists, perhaps less so for a general audience in an exhibition. Forster (2012) takes a different approach. She shows the making of a scenic reconstruction of the interpretation of a shepherd’s shelter and the find from it. It poignantly shows what the archaeological evidence is and what interpretation. I could, for example, also imagine documenting the process of the making of scenic panels such as those shown in Bern in film, which can be shown as part of the exhibition. It is now up to the exhibition makers in Bern whether they see it fit to provide more information concerning these panels or not. As an archaeologist I’d be interested in their opinion. Certainly it is in itself a success that the panels are being discussed at all.That does not take away that to not attempt to interpret would be a serious deficiency on the side of the archaeologists. So it is not that we archaeologists do not want to look upon the `Pfahlbauer´ objectively, or in Hafner’s words `ohne Projektionen´. But firstly these panels might be less subjective than might be expected (we do know, for example that the Lady of Spiez-Einigen was buried lying on a sheepskin) and secondly, we simply have no choice but to be – to some extend – subjective. And even if we could travel back in time, we could still not truly know what it was to be a farmer living on the Lake of Biel in 1800 BC.
Forster E. (2012). Vom archäoligischen Befund zum Lebensbild, Reitmaier, Th. [Hrsg.], Letzte Jäger, erste Hirten. Hochalpine Archäologie in der Silvretta, Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden, Chur, 67-69. DOI:
Reschreiter, H. , Pany-Kucera, D. & Gröbner, D. (2013). Kinderarbeit in 100m Tiefe? neue Lebensbilder zum prähistorischen Hallstätter Salzbergbau, Karl & R. Leskovar, J. [Hrsg.], Interpretierte Eisenzeiten. Fallstudien, Methoden, Theorie. Tagungsbeiträge der 5. Linzer Gespräche zur interpretativen Eisenzeitarchäologie. Studien zur Kulturgeschichte von Oberösterreich, 37 25-38.
Wickstead, H. (2008), Drawing archaeology, in Duff, L. & Sawdon, Ph. [eds.], Drawing: the purpose. Bristol, U.K., Intellect Books. 13-27
The first European Neolithic site I dug was in the south of the Netherlands. All we found were post holes, colourful traces in the yellow sand. We found a handful of pottery shards and a few flint tools, and not very nice ones either, as far as I remember. We were most excited about the remains of traces of old top soils from various periods, or at least I was. It was all very different from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites in Jordan I had worked on, where we found huge quantities of finds as well as standing walls.
Yesterday was the official opening of the new exhibition at the Bernisches Historisches Museum. A new temporary exhibition on the Pfahlbauer – Am Wasser und über die Alpen (The Pile Dwellers – on the water and over the alps). And it’s a jaw dropper! I remember the reverence in the voice of the lecturer – I think it was Prof. G. Barker – of our introductory course at University of Leicester. There was obviously something very special about these Swiss Lake side villages. And indeed, you do not have to work in Swiss archaeology long to realise there is something extraordinary about these sites.
In the middle of the 19th Century Switzerland made a new start, with a new constitution and a new political organisation. Around the same time the first Lake side villages were discovered when, during a dry summer, water levels in lakes across the country dropped dramatically. The inhabitants and builders of these Pfahlbauten, or pile dwellings, have since played a remarkable symbolic role in the building and maintaining of the Swiss national identity. The exhibition, however, only goes into this very briefly and mostly pictorial.
For me as an archaeologist one of the most exciting aspects of these Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, which date between 4300 – 800 BC, is the Continue reading