Category Archives: Bronze Age

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Skiarchaeology I – Schnidejoch

Although one is not always aware of it, even when on skis or snowboard you are often surrounded by interesting historical or archaeological places. Some of the archaeological finds from the ice-patch on the Schnidejoch (on the border between the cantons of Berne and Valais), for example, are the oldest ice finds from the Alps. Fragments of a wooden bowl, goatskin trouser legs and a birchbark arrow quiver date back between 6500 and 4000 years. Although there are finds from later periods, most date to the Neolithic and Bronze Age. But there is one question that remains: “Where are the Mesolithic ice finds from the Alps?”

Hazrel-Schnidejoch

On horizon in the center is the Schnidehorn, with to the left the Schnidejoch. Photo Jan. 2016 from near Bella-Lui, Crans-Montana.

More ski archaeology on twitter: #skiarchaeology and Schnidejoch publication: here.

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Glaciers, forests and prehistory between Andermatt and Hospental

«Gletscher, Wald und Steinzeitmenschen im Urschnertal»

English text below.

Sechs Jahre ist es schon her, dass ich an den archäologischen Prospektionen und Ausgrabungen im Urserntal, zwischen Andermatt und Hospental, teilnahm. Die Funde, welche v. A. aus der Römerzeit, dem Mittelalter sowie aus der Bronzezeit und dem Mesolithikum stammen, wurden vor einigen Jahren ausgewertet und publiziert. Jetzt sind diese archäologischen Funde mit der faszinierenden Wald- und Gletschergeschichte zusammen geführt worden und in einer schönen Sonderausstellung im Talmuseum Urserntal in Andermatt zu sehen.
Neben vielen Bilder, die die Wald-, Gletscher- und Kulturgeschichte illustrieren und einem eindrücklichen Tonbildschau sind viele originale Objekte ausgestellt. So gibt es erstaunlich gut erhaltene und bis zu 8000 Jahre alte fossile Baustämmen zu bestaunen. Sie sind instrumental für das Verständnis des Urserntals so wie wir es heute kennen. Zu guter Letzt ist auch eine schöne Auswahl von archäologischen Funden zu sehen, die etwa 7000 Jahre Menschheitsgeschichte im Urserental widerspiegeln.
Letzten Freitag fand die Vernissage statt, verbunden mit einem erfreulichen Wiedersehen mit alten Kollegen. Die Ausstellung ist noch bis 8. Okt. 2016 zu sehen. Die Öffnungszeiten (Mi-So 16-18:00) erlauben den Besuch nach einen schönen Tag im Schnee oder einer Wanderung im Gotthardgebiet.

Publikationen: Siehe weiter unten

Hazrel_20160108_GletscherWaldSteinzeitmenschen

Fosil woods in the exhibition “Gletscher, Wald und Steinzeitmenschen im Urscherntal” Talmuseum Urserntal, Andermatt.

It has already been six years since I took part in the archaeological survey and excavations between Andermatt and in Hospental in the Urserntal. Finds dating to roman times, the Middle Ages as well as the Bronze Age and Mesolithic, have been analysed and published some years ago. Now, these finds have been combined with the evidence for glacial- and forest histories and have been made into a special exhibition at the Talmuseum Urserntal in Andermatt.
A great number of visuals and an impressive slide/audio-show illustrate the natural and cultural history of the valley. But many original objects can be seen as well. Amazingly well preserved fossil trees dating up to 8000 years back are essential in explaining the glacial and forest histories of the Ursern valley. The valley’s 7000 year long cultural history is shown through archaeological finds spanning this long period.
Friday, the exhibition was officially opened. It is well worth a visit and for many of us it was a good opportunity to meet up with old colleagues again. The exhibition will be open until Oct. 8th 2016. And the best thing is: the opening times (16-18:00 Wed. – Sun.) mean that it is perfect for a visit after a day on the slopes or after a good hike.

Publications:
2014 “Spuren einer Kulturlandschaft. Archäologie Untersuchungen bei Hospental 2007 und 2010.” Historisches Neujahrsblatt 2013, Neue Folge 68, 1/103, pp. 37-83. ISSN: 978-3-906130-87-3

Auf der Maur, C. & Cornelissen, M., 2014, Die spätmesolithische und bronzezeitliche Fundstelle Hospental-Moos. Ein Einblick in das urgeschichtliche Urserntal, in “Spuren einer Kulturlandschaft. Archäologie Untersuchungen bei Hospental 2007 und 2010.Historisches Neujahrsblatt 2013, Neue Folge 68, 1/103, pp. 37-83.

Spillmann, P., Labhart, T., Brücker, W., Renner, F., Gisler, C. & Zgraggen, A., 2011, Geologie des Kantons Uri. Naturforschende Gesellschaft Uri, Bericht 24, Altdorf

Historical fantasies or the inherent subjectivity of archaeology? Die Pfahlbauer in Bern.

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.)

Bauen und Wohnen (Neolithikum) Leucht-Wandbilder (270 x 1000 cm), Ausstellung Die Pfahlbauer - Am Wasser und über die Alpen, in Zusammenarbeit mit illustra.ch Bernisches Historisches Museum

Bauen und Wohnen (Neolithikum) Leucht-Wandbilder (270 x 1000 cm), Ausstellung Die Pfahlbauer – Am Wasser und über die Alpen. Atelier Bunter Hund, in Zusammenarbeit mit illustra.ch. Bernisches Historisches Museum

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.

Dominic Groebner Hans Reschreiter NHM Wien 2012

By D. Groebner – Hans Reschreiter – Naturhistorisches Museum Wien [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

ResearchBlogging.org

Literature

 

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

Pile dwellings and dug-outs. A review of two archaeological exhibitions in Bern and Biel.

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.

Visual zur Wechselausstellung «Die Pfahlbauer – Am Wasser und über die Alpen» © Bernet & Schönenberger, Gestaltung und Typografie, Zürich

Visual zur Wechselausstellung «Die Pfahlbauer – Am Wasser und über die Alpen»
© Bernet & Schönenberger, Gestaltung und Typografie, Zürich

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

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:

Hospental-Moos and the beauty of rock crystal

These artefacts can have something of an old-fashioned beauty, a tactile and organic beauty. There is the smoothness of the slightly undulating percussion ripples on the ventral face. The distal ends are often thin and even and clean-cut, whereas the sides can appear serrated. Where it was severed from the crystal the surface often has a slight oily shine. The opposite side, the dorsal surface, is quite the opposite of organic. It is flat, geometric, sometimes it seems as if it was build up of the thinnest of sheets of crystal. Its mass is fascinatingly transparent. But unlike glass, there are often impurities and ‘healed’ cracks that have grown back together and perhaps the fascination lies in the fact that these impurities and the structure of the opposite outside surface are so very visible.

Merovingian grave ensemble (Grave 413). Rijksmuseum voor Oudheden

Merovingian grave ensemble (Grave 413). Rijksmuseum voor Oudheden

The Naturhistorisches Museum in Berne exhibits an amazing array of crystals of all shapes, colours and sizes. The largest of these is the so-called Planggenstock treasure which was found in the crystalline mountains of the Canton of Uri, Switzerland. To this day ‘Strahler’, or ‘Strahlner’, search for rock crystal in the extension clefts of the Central Swiss Alps. An aquarelle from 1868 shows men on a glacier, against a steep rock face, wearing hats and heavy boots, busy with ropes and sledges and carrying racks as they mine the smokey quartz near the Tiefengletscher. The past few centuries most large crystal finds like these have ended up in museums and collections. And in a way the crystal bead from a Merovingian grave from Rhenen, the Netherlands is also part of a collection. A small private collection of beautiful, precious beads made of glass, amber and rock crystal. Later, during the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern times, rock crystal was often cut into reliquaries and splendid bowls, drinking vessels and carafes. Swiss rock crystal was valued by stone cutters, for example in Milan, for its purity and clarity.

Jug, gilded silver and rock crystal. 1500-1550 AD. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Jug, gilded silver and rock crystal. 1500-1550 AD. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Many years later the Dutch artist Hans Lemmen, fascinated by both palaeolithic hand-axes and crystal,

Continue reading

Central alpine Mesolithic and threats to alpine archaeology – the summery of a presentation

Every year on the second Friday of March about 150 Swiss prehistorians gather in Bern. This year they were made to look at, amongst other things, the red dots on the map be below. I made this map for a presentation Th. Reitmaier and I gave at the yearly meeting of Swiss Prehistorical Society (AGUS). Since the 1980s quite a few Mesolithic sites have been found in the central Alps of northern Italy. Until the beginning of the 21st C hardly any Mesolithic sites were known in the Swiss Central Alps, however. There is Mesocco Tec Nev, of course. And many sites are known further west in the Cantons of Fribourg, Vaud and Wallis. Since ca. 2000 the map of Canton Graubünden in southeastern Switzerland has slowly been filling up as well. As in the Italian Central Alps, many off the sites are found above 1800masl and many date to the 8th and early 7th mill BC.

We presented the site of Bergaglia, Val Forno-Plan Canin. Amateur archaeologist K. von Salis discovered a few chipped stone tools and charcoal in the steep sides of a hiking trail going up to the Fornoglacier and the Murettopass. The trail already had cut through it and threatens to erode it further. To establish the nature of the archaeology and its state of preservation we placed two test-trenches over the two find spots, which were ca. 8m apart. In each of the two test trenches a multi-phased hearth was found, dating to the late 8th and early 7th Mill. BC. A further find probably dates to the early fifth Mill BC. While earlier Mesolithic (Sauveterrien and Castelnovien) finds are common, not many sites dating to the latest Mesolithic and especially the earliest Neolithic are known in the sub-alpine and alpine zones of the central Alps. A further hearth dates to the Late Bronze Age.

known Mesolithic sites in SE-Switzerland and most sites in neighbouring Italy.

All known Mesolithic sites in this part of Switzerland and most sites/site concentrations in Italy. (yellow: two Bronze Age sites.)
1. Bergalia, Val Forno-Plan Canin; 2. Pontresina, Val Languard-Chamanna dal Paster; 3. Maloja, Lunghinpass; 4. Val S. Giamcomo-Borghetto; 5. Val S. Giacomo-Pian dei Cavalli; 6. Mesocco Tec Nev; 7. Mustair-Lai da Rims; 8. Guarda, Val Tuoi, Abri Frey; 9. Ftan, Val Urschai, Plan da Mattun L2 & L3; 10. Sent, Fimba, Kuppe Blaisch; 11. Galtür, Jamtal, Abri Futschöl; 12. Airolo-Alpe di Rodont; 13. Hospental Moos; 14. Muotatal Caves; 15. Sites of the Simplon-region.

The Alps are of course a stunning natural landscape. However, we should not forget it has been heavily shaped by human activity during the past ten thousand years. And this process continues to this day. The impact of our activity in the Alps, whether in the shape of tourism, mining, transport and the changing agricultural practices should not be underestimated. This means we, archaeologists as well as policy makers, should be aware of the threats our living in and enjoyment of the Alps pose to our cultural heritage. These same activities, however, provide many opportunities to discover hitherto unknown archaeology. The word-cloud lists the most prominent categories of threats to archaeology in the alpine regions. (I wrote more about this here and here.)

Threats to archaeological remains in the alps.

concept & production by Th. Reitmaier

However, it is not only through this more `passive´ way of discovery that we can increase our knowledge of the cultural history of the Alps. It has been shown that active searching for archaeological remains, through survey work with well aimed research questions and adequate methodology, can be very successful. These surveys can vary between simple field-walking to predictive modelling (put into practise here) and everything in between.

One cannot protect what one does not know. Cantonal Units can therefore not limit themselves to dig known sites that are in danger of being destroyed, but should increase their knowledge of the archaeology in their Canton and actively search for it, whether in the Alps or in the lowlands.

If you are ever in the Alps and find any archaeological finds in the sides of a hiking path, on a ice patch on a pass or anywhere else, please get in touch with the local police or the people in the nearest mountain hut or hotel and they will pass on the information to the archaeological authorities. We need your help and are very interested in hearing from you!

The test-trenching at Bregalia, Val Forno, Plan Canin will be published in the Jahrbuch Archäologie Schweiz 2012:

Cornelissen, M., Reitmaier, Th., Gubler, R., Andres, B. & Hess, Th., 2012, Bregaglia, Val Forno, Plan Canin – Eine neue alpine Fundstelle im Oberengadin, in Jahrbuch Archäologie Schweiz, Vol. 95, pp.133-140