Sounds of the Mesolithic
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Category Archives: Graubünden
So, that’s that. Last week I had the honour and immense pleasure to help dig a few trenches at Las Gondas in the Fimbertal, between the Lower Engadin and Paznaun valleys. The Rückwege project was initiated by Thomas Reitmaier in 2006 and this might or might not turn out to have been the last ever field season. 10 years of multi-disciplinary and highly successful alpine archaeological fieldwork have come to an end. It was a fantastic time and a great week away from the PhD. A week in which a wonderful group of archaeologists and friends, who have all been involved in the project over the years, got together to excavate a system of animal pens in the beautiful Fimber valley. We managed to sort out the stratigraphy and expect it to be prehistoric, perhaps chronologically comparable to the Iron Age hut ruins we excavated further down the valley. But, as so often in the Alps, finds are scarce. So, we’ll have to wait for the 14-C dates to come back.
I would like to thank my friends, and especially Thomas, for their companionship, the laughs, the snoring, the Streusel, the EIER, the Schnapps, wine and beer, the snow, Lassiter, the tons of charcoal and the many buckets full of dirt and stone. Do have a look at Thomas’s post on the Silvretta-Historica blog, which I’ve linked to below as well!
sodalla – wir sind also schon wieder gut zurück aus dem schönen fimbertal und einer sehr erfolgreichen einwöchigen grabungskampagne im gebiet las gondas … . das hauptanliegen, die dortigen pferchstrukturen genauer zu untersuchen und hoffentlich im verlauf der nächsten wochen auch mittels 14c-datierungen zeitlich einzuordnen, haben wir mit einem ausgezeichneten und hochmotivierten grabungsteam problemlos erreicht, trotz der mitunter etwas widrigen wetterbedingungen … (CLICK ON THIS LINK TO THE SILVRETTA-HISTORICA PROJECT BLOG FOR MORE INFO AND LOTS OF GREAT PHOTOS FROM THE FIELDWORK!)
It was a scorching hot day in June 2014 in the Italian Dolomites. Now it is Febuary 2016. It is cold and dark out and I can’t wait to get on skis again. Still, it is a good day to think back on that hot June day when Thomas Reitmaier and I presented the results of a decade or so of Mesolithic research in the Alps of south eastern and central Switzerland at the MesoLife conference in Selva di Cadore. It is now available online!
Now you might think, is there any evidence for Mesolithic hunter-fisher-gatherers in the inhospitable high Alps? Well, yes there is. Up to 2007 hardly a handful of surface and loose finds were known. But many hours of dedicated fieldwork by many people have resulted in quite some new information. Thomas and I have tried to pull it all together and write it up. We were not only able to give a good impression of what we know of Mesolithic life in this part of the Alps, but also of what we do not yet know and what is to be done about that!
We are very excited that the corrected proof of the article is now available online as a preprint. So, get in your lazy chair in your snug warm room with a hot bevvy or a beer, look out on the wintery world outside and read all about the marvelous lives of people in the Alps 11’000 – 7’500 years ago. As you do, please also spare a thought for the archaeologists who spend days in rain, fog, sunshine and snow, with or without us, plodding across alpine meadows, climbing obscure passes and help dig innumerable – often empty – test-trenches.
Cornelissen, M., Reitmaier, T., in press. Filling the gap: Recent Mesolithic discoveries in the central and south-eastern Swiss Alps, Quaternary International (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2015.10.121
Until 2007 only a handful of surface finds dating to between the end of the LGM and the Middle Neolithic were known in the alpine regions of central and south-eastern Switzerland. A number of recent rescue excavations, research projects and single finds have now shown the presence of people at high altitude in these parts of the Alps from the 9th millennium cal BC onwards. 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, as well as their relationship with regions further afield. Furthermore, the finds allow us to start thinking about future research into the early prehistory of the south-eastern Swiss Alps.
I am sorry about the pay wall (but, pssst, check the publications page …).
And when this is not enough entertainment, look for the other preprints of paper on the Mesolithic of the Alps that resulted from MesoLife conference. Many thanks to the editors of Quaternary International and the MesoLife guest-editors for enabling us to publish this here!
“The Stone pine, each its own, unmistakable: born and growing on this very spot, while birds came and moved along and other birds came and left again. And she has turned old, ancient, she became ever more beautiful, more free, whether you look at her or not, one day she will die up here, torn by fire, thrown down by the dry hot föhn-wind, with her trunk hollow of age which will lie pale as bone, with its blunt branches, bumbs and horns on her almost indistructable patriarchical body.”
Andri Peer. «Daman da chatscha» / «Jagdmorgen» (1959/1961); my translation.
«Die Arve, jede sich selbst, unverwechselbar: geboren und gewachsen auf diesem Platz, während die Vögel gekommen und fortgezogen sind und andere Vögel gekommen und wieder gegangen. Und sie ist alt geworden, uralt, immer schöner, immer freier, ob du sie anschaust oder nicht, eines Tages stirbt sie hier oben, zerrissen von einer Feuerpranke, zu Boden geworfen vom Föhn, mit dem vor Alter schon hohlen Stamm, der noch Jahre und Jahre rein erbleicht mit seiner Knochenweisse, mit seinen stumpfen Ästen, Buckeln und Hörnern auf dem fast unverweslichen Patriarchenleib.»
Andri Peer. «Daman da chatscha» / «Jagdmorgen» (1959/1961)
In Peer’s text this magnificent stone pine, Pinus cembra (also known as the Arolla or Swiss stone pine) might stand as a symbol for the Romansh languange and culture and its perserverence (ca. 60.000 people speak one of its dialects). It reminds me of the piece of wood that was cut from a trunk in an alpine moor at 2363 masl in Las Gondas. The Las Gondas moor lies just below the Fuorcla da Tasna, above the Lower Engadin valley. Because a sample taken from the tree trunk could be dendrochronologically dated, we know it grew and grew old here over eight and a half thousand years ago. But already almost 2000 years before that Arolla pine grew here, as needles from that time have been found in the Las Gondas moor.
If you have never been there, you should visit the Tamangur forest on the southern side of the Lower Engadin valley. It is fantastic to walk through this open forest high in the Alps, a forest made up almost exclusively of Stone pines. Alive there is a softness about them, with their many small bundles of each five needles. But they can also appear almost archaic, their bare roots arching into the soil below. There is not much undergrowth, low bilberry bushes and alpenroses, the ground soft with needles, moss and grass.
Tamangur forest is one of the last of its kind. I am at the moment trying to write an article about the Mesolithic of the Alps of southeastern Switzerland. We know that 10’000 years ago, with the glaciers still retreating, people were already at similar altitudes not far from Las Gondas and they might well have walked in the cool shade of the very Stone pines that shed their needles and left their trunks in Las Gondas. They might have sheltered under the enormous rocks in the Plan da Mattun and have rested on the bare, bleached bone roots and trunks of these ancient trees.
Dietre, B., Walser, C., Lambers, K., Reitmaier, T., Hajdas, I., Haas, J.-N., 2014. Palaeological evidence for Mesolithic to Medieval climatic change and anthropogenic impact on the Alpine flora and vegetation of the Silvretta Massiv (Switzerland/Austria). Quarternary International 353, 3-16.
Ganzoni., A., 2015, Aufgetaucht: «Das verborgenere Engadin». Fundstücke aus dem Schweizerischen Literaturarchiv: Eine Fotokarte des Engadiner Schrifstellers Andri Peer, in: Der Bund 02.01.2015 (last visited 16.01.2015)
Nicolussi, K., 2012. Jahrringdaten zur Früh- und mittelholozänen Baumgrenze in der Silvretta, in: Reitmaier, T. (Ed.), Letzte Jäger, Erste Hirten. Hochalpine Archäologie in der Silvretta. Amt für Kultur, Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden, Chur, pp. 87-100. (PDF of an older version).
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. Amt für Kultur, Archäologische Dienst Graubünden (ADG), Chur, pp. 9-65.
It is already a few years ago that I took part in the fieldwork part of the “Silvretta Historica” project of my friend Th. Reitmaier. The fieldwork has been completed and now it is time for post-excavation work and once every while to look back at the great archaeology and wonderful times we had in the Alps on the Swiss-Austrian border.
But, looking to the future, today I met with another friend to talk about starting a new field project in the near future. Exciting things on the horizon!
Time to finally write a last “Traversar” post for this year. There are really two sides to our Passes of the Grison Project. Mostly we do inventory related work. We survey the study areas and record any archaeological sites we discover. There is of course a research element to this. The archaeology of many of the regions we study is not very well-known and anything we discover increases our knowledge of the (pre-)history of the region. We don’t excavate, though. We do make small test-trenches of up to ca. 30×30 cm or take auger cores at most sites we find. These allow us to evaluate the stratigraphy and if we are lucky we might find artefacts or, more likely, we can take charcoal samples for radiocarbon dating.
The sites we find become part of the cantonal database of archaeological sites. This again allows the archaeological service to react when sites become threatened by building plans, erosion, ploughing etc. Our work in the Oberalppass area is an example of this. You might not realise it, but mountain slopes get bulldozed quite properly these days before they become a ski-piste. Also, pylons for lifts, water pipes for artificial snow-installations, foundations for your favourite ski bar and artificial lakes to hold water for making artificial snow, they all need substantial holes in the ground. A major expansion of the Andermatt-Sedrun Ski Arena is planned. And the Disentis 3000 ski area plans to install a whole system of snow blowers to guarantee its guests a good snow cover. Such plans will become ever more common with increasing winter temperatures and should get appropriate archaeological attention throughout the Alps.
So on Wednesday, we surveyed the relevant parts of the Disentis 3000 ski resort. Rudolf Büchi kindly took the time to explain the current plans and let us use the ski lifts to save time. Up in the ski area we were surprised to find quite a few hitherto unknown archaeological sites as well as further archaeologically interesting areas. It will be very very interesting to have a more detailed look at the finds we made and see the dates we get from the charcoal samples we took. Other areas, however, have already been heavily disturbed by previous building activities.
The days after this we were lucky the weather got a bit better. We turned our attention to the upper part of the Val Maighels and the Val Strem. In both valleys we recorded a number of building remains, which may relate to transhumance activity of Medieval or post-Medieval date. One of these, near the Chrüzlipass in the Val Strem, might well be much older. Very exciting. Hunter-gatherers and shepherds remained rather elusive, as so often. However, both on the Passo Bornengo and the Chrüzlipass we were surprised to find substantial building remains. These are almost certainly military, probably part of the fortifications made during the WWI. Later 20th century military structures are often well recorded, but few records exist of these WWI fortifications. Although Switzerland was neutral during WWI, mobilisation did take place and many passes were fortified. The canton of Graubünden/Grison has started to record some of these, hopefully other cantons with strategic passes will follow this example soon.
The finds we made in these two valley reflect the situation we found the rest of the week as well. Despite the not ideal weather, we have been able to do almost everything we wanted. Also, our expectations based on our desk-based work have been fulfilled. So also methodologically, we seem to be on the right track. Concerning those elusive hunter-gatherers, perhaps they did not leave many traces, perhaps these can only be found with more intensive surveying and more test-trenching.
Tuesday evening and I am staring out at the clouds that are slowly filling the valley top to bottom again. It has been a bit of a fight with the weather so far. We had a good day on monday, though. At least archaeologically. Our hunting grounds were a side valley of the Val Medels, which culminates at the Lukmanierpass. A lake high up at the end of this valley caught our attention. Such lakes have long been of interest to shepherds and especially to Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. We were lucky enough to survey its shores in sunny weather, but weren’t lucky enough to find any archaeological remains there.
After a picknick lunch we turned our attention to the valley flanks where our deskbased work, esp. with old maps and arial photos, had shown we should expect the remains of huts and animal pens. It quickly became clear we were right. However, the weather turned, but we stuck it out in the rain and recorded a number of transhumance related building remains. We even located a potential hearth of these elusive hunter-gatherers underneath a rockshelter. When people used this probable hearth we will only know once we have dated the charcoal samples we took.
Today we dodged the clouds, as it turned out to be an office day. With the low clouds and at times heavy rain it would have been impossible to do any useful surveying. But our documentation is finished to perfection now and we got to enjoy the sights of Disentis/Mustér, where we are based.