Sickles? You’re still wondering about sickles?

This post is dedicated to all you blogging archaeologists out there going through the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of blogging. But especially to John Lowe (of whereinthehellamI fame), whose fantastic playlist helped me write this (and the part of my thesis this blog post is based on).

Imagine a settlement 14 000 years ago. Image a few round buildings. Imagine a group of people living there, a few families maybe, living by hunting gazelle and birds and gathering, amongst other plants wild legumes and wild barley (Edwards 2007; Colledge 2001). Imagine somebody going about his or her business, collecting and hunting in the vicinity of the settlement and carrying with them all they needed. Imagine this tool set, carefully held in a bag or basket, left lying near the wall of a building, a house probably. Imagine it containing a few pebbles, some with traces that show they have been used; containing a flint core from which very handy bladelets can be made; containing some more bits and pieces, a bone haft, some gazelle foot bones (phalanges) and half moon shaped flint implements, perhaps arrow- or spearheads. And a sickle.

Yes, a sickle. There are more places to find out about sickles than just the Swiss Late Neolithic. The settlement described above is a Natufian site called Wadi Hammeh 27 (Edwards 2007). It lies in the Jordan Valley. The excavators called the building Structure 1 and the finds are part of assemblage 9. It is to be expected that this assemblage of finds was once held in a bag or basket made of some organic material, which had perished by the time it was excavated. More sickle fragments and bladelets were found at Wadi Hammeh 27, as well as at other contemporary sites. Other complete or fragments of sickles have been found in Kebara cave, at El Wad, Erq el Ahmar, Oum ez-Zoueitina, Eynan (Ain Mallaha), Hayonim and Nahal Oren (Bar-Yosef 1987; Garrod, 1932). Adhesives on blades from various sites show they were hafted, as the Wadi Hammeh 27 sickle, in a straight haft or in a curved hafts (Bar-Yosef 1987). In both the experimental studies by Goodale et al (2010) and by myself straight hafts were used. Mostly, however, it is only through use wear studies that we know Natufian bladelets were used as sickles

Wadi Hammen 27.

Wadi Hammen 27. Artefact assemblage 9. From Edwards 2007, fig.2

The fact that palaeobotanical research has shown that wild legumes and wild barley were collected by the people at Wadi Hammeh 27 and used sickles makes it interesting for my use wear studies on Late Mesolithic sites in the alpine foreland of central Europe, where cerealia Type pollen is known from off-site locations, but nothing much more is known about the details of the adoption of agriculture in the region (Behre  2009; Tinner et al 2009).

Sickle haft fragments for Mugharet-El Wad. From Garrod 1932

Sickle haft fragments for Mugharet-El Wad. From Garrod 1932

There are a few fascinating aspects to be noted about the sickle itself. The haft is made of goat of sheep horn core. And in it two slots are made that are filled with two rows of 5 Helwan bladelets each. One row is made of pale brown flint (Munsell 10 YR 8/2, apparently) and one row of a grey flint (10YR 8/1).

I think it also fascinating that the maker or owner of the sickle thought it somehow important to make the sickle look good. In fact, it appears that more sickles of the period  were decorated. There is the sickle from Nadal Heimar, which is decorated with a zick zack pattern. In fact, Goodale et al (2010) have shown that sickles of the somewhat later PPNA sites of Dhra’, Jordan, were used for an extended period of time, showing sickles were clearly important for people living through the economic and social changes of the end of the last Late Glacial and the early Holocene. Yes sickles!

BAR-YOSEF, O. 1987. Direct and Indirect evidence for hafting in the Epi-Palaeolithic and Neolithic of the Southern Levant. In: STORDEUR, D. (ed.) La Main et l’Outil. Manches et emmanchements préhistoriques. Table Ronde C.N.R.S. tenue à lyon du 26 au 29 novembre 1984. Lyon: Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée Jean Pouilloux.

BEHRE, K. E. 2007. Evidence for Mesolithic agriculture in and around central Europe? Vegetation History and Archaebotany, 16, 203-219.

COLLEDGE, S. 2001. Plant exploitation on Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic sites in the Levant, Oxford.

Philip C. Edwards (2007). A 14 000 year-old hunter-gatherer’s toolkit Antiquity, 81 (314), 865-876

GARROD, D. A. E. 1932. A New Mesolithic Industry: The Natufian of Palestine. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 62, 257-269.

GOODALE, N., OTIS, H., ANDREFSKY, W., KUIJT, I., FINLAYSON, B. & BART, K. 2010. Sickle blade life-history and the transition to agriculture: an early Neolithic case study from Southwest Asia. Journal of Archaeological Science, 37, 1192-1201.

TINNER, W., NIELSEN, E. & LOTTER, A. F. 2007. Mesolithic agriculture in Switzerland? A critical review of the evidence. Quaternary Science Review, 26, 1416-1431.

Blogging Archaeology – Why I started, why I still blog and why I will keep blogging


Blogging Archaeology

I had seen his post about the SAA 2014 blogging in archaeology session and the archaeological blogging carnival and I thought: shame, interesting but no time. Then I received an email from Doug (thank you for organising this!) And it started to nag me. I could not stop thinking that it’s good to think about these issues once every while. And it nagged and it nagged. Until yesterday morning in the shower the post was writing itself in my head. Bloggers unite and join #blogarch! I will and I will enjoy reading why other archaeological bloggers are blogging. Besides, what better to do on a snowy winter’s morning than blog about archaeology?

How does it work: Each month leading up to the SAA he will post a question. If you would like to answer this question, you blog about it, as will hopefully do a lot of other archaeology bloggers.

Why do I blog?

It all started about six years ago. I was not satisfied with the possibilities my department’s website gave me in developing my on-line presence. Over a few beers with my friend Ben (from the fantastic Version1) we discussed the possibilities and we came to the conclusions, it had to be a blog. So, I went on-line and discovered that there was a small community of blogging archaeologists, mostly young researchers and almost all in the English speaking world. It felt quite exciting to join them. So, I started hazelnut_relations and initially I set it up mostly as an online profile.

Soon it dawned on me this wordpress blog thing allowed me not only to build my own online profile, but that really it is a platform I could write on, about anything I wanted to write about! Ha! I liked writing and thought it might be good practice, if not a bit scary to do so in public. I was going to write about anything in archaeology I was interested in, whether Swiss archaeology, interesting bits of archaeological news, publications, my lost love The Palaeolithic, and my own research of course. My then unfunded PhD research progressed only ever so slowly while I was working pretty much full-time in archaeological services. Slowly, I found my niche in Swiss Archaeology, though. Over time I also felt I was finding my voice and was having more and more fun blogging.

Why am I still blogging?

I don’t think I have to explain to you how important it is that we, archaeologists, share our work with others. As a PhD student I have no budget for this, but I don’ need to: the blog is free and allows me to share my work and what we are finding out about our past, whether it is my PhD research or other projects I am involved in.

Secondly, blogging allows me to share this, not only with the general public, but also with fellow archaeologists near and far, with my friends and family and with the stakeholders in my project. This latter point has become more important since I became part of a larger project and we got funding for our project in October 2012 and the number of stakeholders subsequently increased significantly (but do you read this blog at all, stakeholders?). Thirdly, this public funding also increases our obligation to communicate our work.

The funding has had an influence on my blogging in yet another way: It meant I am now working full-time on my PhD and only do a few small research projects on the side, allowing me to specialise. Regular readers know that these days I focus mostly on alpine archaeology and on microscopic use wear analysis of Late Mesolithic chipped stone artefacts. As far as I am aware I am the only blogging Swiss archaeology PhD student. And in general, only a few Swiss archaeologists are professionally active on social media. A shame, I think (JOIN ME!), as, really, although I am not originally from Switzerland, I am quite proud of the work that we do here and I am determined to brag about it!

Point five: The Mesolithic is a fascinating part of human history. Be honest, who can resist being intrigued by the changes taking places during the early Holocene, as the ice retreated and new wonderful ideas and foods and knowledge arrived in our parts of the world? So, as a colleague once wrote to me: “Long Live The Mesolithic!

Why do you blog and still blog? I think to answer that you have to also answer the question: who you write for? However, the question of audience is particular tricky in my case.

I work in country with four official languages and working and living in regions that are officially bilingual, doesn’t make it easier. Working here it is also impossible not to connect with the German, French and Italian speaking regions only a stone’s throw away. Moreover, one of my supervisors is from the UK and the world of use wear analysis is quite international. In the end I decided on writing in English, but even after almost six years I am not completely sure about this decision. On the one side, would you be reading this had I written this in German or French? On the other hand, I fear I now exclude some of the local general public. So, who do I write for?

Actually, although I am truly grateful for and – to be honest – really quite flattered by the small audience I have out there and I really hope you enjoy coming by here once every while (let me know who you are sometime!), I think I mostly write for myself. The writing really is good practice and sometimes writing for my blog about issues I am dealing with in my research helps me thinking them through. It forces me to think clearly and more honestly. It is a bit like a mental purification. Sometimes, I even start writing a blog post that then does not even make it onto the blog and turns into part of my thesis or an article. By now, I see this blog as an intregral part of my PhD and professional identity.

So, that is why I blog and am still blogging and will keep blogging for a while.

P.S. But I would not mind if blogging, or science communication in general, also got some sort of support from my department, faculty or university. (If only it would qualify for an ECTS point. I need 12 for my PhD, thank you very much.)

Sickles? You’ve been wondering about sickles?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To blogroll or not to blogroll …

Dear readers, you might have noticed a small change on this site, on the blogroll to be precise. I would like to briefly explain it. When I started with hazelnut_relations some five and a half years ago (April 2008), there were a quite a few other archaeologists blogging, but only about so many that I could keep an eye on it all. So I compiled a list of links of blogs I particularly liked reading and I thought my readers might like too. The list also served as my not-so-high-tech rss-reader. And it was considered good form to keep a blogroll.

Things have changed since then. A lot, really. There are many many more wonderful archaeological blogs these days. There are rss-readers (maybe they existed in 2008 as well, but I hadn’t discovered them yet – now I use feedly) and there is twitter, which I also use to follow people doing work I am interested in. I thus don’t need this list of links to keep up with things anymore. Fashions change too and so does what are considered good web-manners. Blogrolls appear to be a less essential part of a blog these days. Blogs appear and disappear – they die or whither away – as well. I do not like links that do not work and that means curating. Also, if I’d put all blogs I enjoy on the list, it would be ridiculously long.

I have decided to shorten the blogroll dramatically, and I have to admit I do so with some sadness. I have left only links that are directly relevant (but what is directly relevant and what not?) to my own current research: lithic use-wear analysis of the (Late) Mesolithic in Switzerland and alpine archaeology. And I also spared my “friends without trowels”, because it can’t always be archaeology, or can it?

So, if you find the link to your website/blog has disappeared or your favourite links have disappeared, it is not a sign of me not appreciating your blog anymore, it’s more a sign of the time and a sign of me not having more time to curate the blogroll. Things change, maybe it will all be different again in 5 and a half years from now. If I am still blogging then.

So, here the unfortunates are for a last performance:

A hidden view
Archaeology and Material Culture
cognition and culture
Digs and Docs
ex oriente
finds and features
John Hawks
looting matters
matthew law
Miko Flohr
Modern Men and Ancient Myths
Neanderthal Museum 2.0
Northwest Coast Archaeology
passim in passing
past thinking
Process: Opinions on Doing Archaeology
Science Mag’s Neandertal feature
serious and not-so-serious musings on archaeology
Sprache der Dinge
Stones, Bones and Dispersals
the archaeological eye
the rocks remain
think dig write share
where in the hell am i

Traversar III – a photographic record

Autumn has arrived in the Alps. The grass is losing its green lustre, leaves are slowly turning brown, farmers have moved their life-stock from alpine summer pastures down into the valleys and snow is expected later this week. Time to have a first cautious look back on this summer’s archaeological activities in the Swiss Alps.

I already wrote once about a small project we, a select team of expert alpine archaeologists (of course), started with the aim to study the archaeological remains at a number of the most important passes in the Grisons. This summer we were mostly active in the San Bernardinopass region. We also surveyed some areas in the Upper Engadin Valley which are to be subject to development in the near future. (For this we were officially commissioned by the Archaeological Unit of the Canton of Graubünden.)

We were lucky with the weather and were able to do all we set out to. We had some interesting results and although dating is difficult at this stage, we expect our finds to be both of medieval/early modern as well as prehistoric dates. While we are cleaning up the documentation, analysing the results and waiting for the C14 dates, I thought I posts some photos giving an impression of the fieldwork.

And if you are interested in the archaeology of the Alps, why not have a look at the alpine archaeology blog? Students of the Alpine Archaeology: tools and techniques e-learning course at the Universität Zürich will be blogging here this semester (DE).

During the fieldwork we discussed archaeology and bandes dessinée. We talked about the book Le soleil des morts, by comic artist A. Houot and archaeologists A. Gallay. (I believe it is not in print anymore.) I would be very interested in hearing about other good examples (in any language), so do get in touch!

Attinghausen-Geissrüggen, the media and the battle over the oldest Swiss Alp Hut

So often it is the superlatives, the oldest, the biggest, the first that make it into the media. That is what happened with the site of Attinghausen-Geissrüggen in the Canton Uri, “the oldest Alp Hut in Switzerland”, or at least Central Switzerland. (See hyperlinks in the text.) Regular visitors to Hazelnut Relations will know that in 2010 I was involved in compiling the archaeological site inventory of the Canton Uri and during that same summer was part of the team surveying and excavating the area between Andermatt and Hospental ahead of the building of a golf course. Some weeks ago now, I helped some colleagues dig an alpine site in Canton Uri for a few days. And I actually got to wield my mighty trowel! Even though I thought I would not really get to dig at all this summer.

Profile and stratigraphy discussion by the experts. Die Experte diskutierten über die Stratigrafie auf Attinghausen-Geissrüggen.

Profile and stratigraphy discussion by the experts at Attinghausen-Geissrüggen.
Die Experte diskutierten über Stratigrafie auf Attinghausen-Geissrüggen.

The site my colleagues were excavating is one of over 500 alpine ruins documented during survey work by Marion Sauter and Walter Imhof since 2009. Together with a small team around Urs Leuzinger, they spend a good week excavating the remains of a building, tentatively dated to the 7th – 5th C. BC. More charcoal samples for radiocarbon dating from good contexts will provide more secure dating. Sadly, but not uncommon for such alpine sites, no finds were made within the building’s outline. A structure in Val Fenga, in the Silvretta (in the excavation of which I was also involved), was dated by associated finds and radiocarbon dating to the 6 – 7th C. BC. So, whichever one turns out to be older, it is interesting to see that the evidence for the prehistoric use of the Swiss Alps is increasing.

A further alpine ruin, probably dating to the Early Modern Period, in the region. Eine weitere Wüstung in der Region, wahrscheinlich frühe Neuzeit.

A further alpine ruin, probably dating to the Early Modern Period, in the region.
Eine weitere Wüstung in der Region, wahrscheinlich frühe Neuzeit.

The site of Attinghausen-Geissrüggen is situated above the bushes on the flank of the ridge.

The site of Attinghausen-Geissrüggen is situated above the bushes on the flank of the ridge.
Die Fundstelle Attinghausen-Geissrüggen befindet sich oberhalb der Strauchen oben auf der Rücke.

The Attinghausen structure is situated on the present day route to the Surenenpass. Its function remains unknown, but the media (tv item) has endorsed it as (one of two?) the oldest Alp hut of Switzerland. No evidence for prehistoric alpine transhumance economies in Switzerland was known until the investigation of the structures in Attinghausen and the Val Fenga, but with the investigation of these and further sites, esp. in the Silvretta, we are gaining a much better understanding of the prehistory of trancehumance in Switzerland. First results from pollen cores, taken in moors near Geissrüggen also seem to point in this direction. However, some function related to traffic across the Surenenpass, as is known from historic periods, would also be a possible interpretation. One old and three new surface finds show the pass was used during late prehistoric and Roman times. Interestingly, to this day a chapel stands near where some of these were found.

View over Attinghausen-Geissrüggen. Befund Attinghausen-Geissrüggen.

View over Attinghausen-Geissrüggen.
Befund Attinghausen-Geissrüggen.

As the Canton of Uri still has no archaeological service and archaeology still lives a quiet and largely undiscovered and unloved life there, the almost exaggerated media attention can only be seen as a good thing. And that the people of Uri are interested in their archaeological heritage is clearly shown by 150-200 people that visited the excavation over the weekend. Considering that they had to walk up 500 height meters, I’d say that that is a good show up. Thanks to all those visitors and to M. Sauter and W. Imhof for their survey work!

It is hoped to continue the fieldwork 2014. The results of the 2013 excavation will probably be published in the Jahrbuch Archäologie Schweiz 2014.
On November 6th 2013 (18:15), the excavators will talk about thier work at the Abt. UFG at the Universität Zürich. The talk is open to everyone.

Stunning geological folding near the site. Schöne geologische Faltung in der Nähe der Fundstelle.

Stunning geological folding near the site.
Schöne geologische Faltung in der Nähe der Fundstelle.


Traversar II – a first glimps


Looking down on the northern side of the San Bernardino pass

We have had a very good week in the field so far. Weather, food and company have been great. The archaeology has not been bad either. As soon as I have internet again, there will be more news!

Traversar – Surveying the passes of Graubünden

Outtake from the IVS-GIS. ©

Outtake from the IVS-GIS. ©

Thankfully, I am allowed outside again next week. With a small international and select group of crack archaeologists – most of us old comrades in arms – we will be starting a three year survey project of some of the main passes in the Canton of Graubünden. The work is commissioned by the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Graubünden. A second leg of the project is the documentation of remains of WWI fortifications. Switzerland remained neutral, but guarded its borders intensely. So far the archaeological community in Switzerland has paid little attention to 20th C archaeology, but it seems right to start studying these now and make the wider public aware of the cultural historical value of these remains and that we should not leave them to private collectors.

Our group, will be focussing on prehistoric sites, though. We are starting with the region of the San Bernardino pass, the Julier pass and an area on the northern slopes of the Upper Engadin valley. Finds are known from both near / on the Julier and San Bernardino passes, but there are uninvestigated areas around both, and e.g. on the Julier archaeological focus so far has been almost solely on the Roman Period. If we have the possibility (internet access), we will try to keep you posted on the fieldwork here, so stop by once every while. We are very excited about getting started!

Barley and hops

What are you going to do with it? Will you brew beer? Can you make bread with that? Friends and colleagues are quite fascinated with the barley I harvested in the garden a few days ago and with what to do with it. In fact, I do not really know what to do with it myself. It is a big bucket full of ears, a kilo or two, perhaps a bit more, but I have not weighed it yet.

I kept the experimental harvesting simple, while trying not to do anything Late Mesolithic people might not have done. I hafted two blades with birch tar in a simple, straight wooden haft. The blade’s morphology is comparable to some of the blades found at Late Mesolithic sites in Switzerland. I used retouched as well as unretouched blades. The unretouched blades were definitely sharper, but both worked very well and the harvesting was quite fast. Of course, we don’t know whether Late Mesolithic people in Central Europe grew and harvested cereals. The debate about this has come to a standstill and probably will only advance with more data. It is also possible they harvested other sicileous plant material, such as grasses and reeds, for thatching or matting, for example.

Experimental harvesting of barley (Hordeum vulgare) with hatfed radiolarite and `Ölquarzite´ blades.

Experimental harvesting of barley (Hordeum vulgare, imperial) with hatfed radiolarite and `Ölquarzite´ blades (Late Mesolithic type). August 2013.

The harvested barley needs to dry now and will need threshing, then we will see what to do with it. Surprisingly, though, the hop plant that has been quitely, and prettily, growing in our garden for 4 or 5 years now is actually flowering for the first time. Saint Arnold or Gambrinus or however must be sending me a message: “Dash that PhD! What are you, a fine young fellow, doing playing with old rocks, when the ingredients for a fine alcoholic beverage are growing right there in your own garden?” So, I’ll consider it while commuting to Fribourg for another microscope session.

Hops, growing and, for the first time, flowering in my garden.

Hops, growing and, for the first time, flowering in my garden.

Reader of Traces – archaeology is documentation

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

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

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

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

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

An experimentally made scraper being used on hazel wood.

An experimentally made scraper being used to work hazel wood.

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

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

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

Gardening and the onset of agriculture in the Swiss Alps

Hordeum vulgare Imperialgerste, 2 row hulled summer barley

Hordeum vulgare Imperialgerste, 2 row hulled summer barley

A small patch of my garden has become an unlikely symbol of my archaeological activities of the past 4-5 years. Far away on the slopes of the lower Engadin Valley in the south eastern corner of Switzerland, deep in the central Alps lies the village of Ramosch. Nearby a well preserved terrace landscape is still visible. Recent archaeological work has shown that these terraces date back to the Late Neolithic. These terraces have been used well into the 20th C AD to grow flax and cereals, mostly rye and barley which does not mind dry spells and the short growing season. Even to this day brewing barley is grown in the Lower Engadin Valley above 1000masl from which Birra Engiadinaisa makes some very good brews.

The presence of terraces such as these and settlement sites dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages in combination with the lack of known sites of similar dates in the higher side valleys prompted the Rückwege Projekt (Reitmaier, 2012), in which I took part 2010 and 2011. Since then I have not been able to let loose the archaeology of the Alps anymore. And now barley from Ramosch is growing just below my office window (obtained through the fantastic organisation ProSpecieRara). Also, with a few friends we are starting a new three year project in the Alps this August, about which I will write more some time soon.

Although I am relishing the idea of cooking some fine Bündner Gerstensuppe (barley soup), I am almost more keen for the actual harvesting of the ripe grains using experimentally made Mesolithic chipped stone blades. The focus of the experiment will be on the tools as they will become part of the reference collection for the use wear analyses of the artefacts from Arconciel/La Souche and Lutter/St. Joseph. There has been a long debate about pre-Neolihtic cereal use in Central Western Europe (Behre, 2007, Tinner et al., 2007). Perhaps the experimental harvesting of this barley in combination my use wear analyses of Late Mesolithic artefacts will be able to contribute a little to our understanding of the processes of the adoption of agriculture in the region.


BEHRE, K. E. 2007. Evidence for Mesolithic agriculture in and around central Europe? Vegetation History and Archaebotany, 16, 203-219

REITMAIER, T. 2012. Letzte Jäger, erste Hirten. Alpine Archäologie in der Silvretta 2007-2012. In: REITMAIER, T. (ed.) Letzte Jäger, erste Hirten. Hochalpine Archäologie in der Silvretta. Chur: Amt für Kultur, Archäologische Dienst Graubünden (ADG)

Tinner W., Nielsen E. & Lotter A.F. (2007). Mesolithic agriculture in Switzerland? A critical review of the evidence, Quaternary Science Review, 26 1416-1431. DOI:

Spurenleser – use wear analyses animation

Arte TV has produced a lovely series of short informative animated films about archaeological specialists. And one is about use wear analyses!

Archäeologie Experte – Spurenleser.

If your  German is a bit rusty, there is also a French version (le tracéologue). And you might want to take the opportunity to procrastinate a bit more and watch all of them! Finally find out about what these palynologists and ceramic specialists and geomorphologists really d0.

Still from Spurenleser - Archäologie Experte. Arte TV

Still from Spurenleser – Archäologie Experte. Arte TV

Archaeology and sardine tins: lunch breaks through the ages

“A deserted camp with empty sardine tins gave proof of Newcombe and Hornby.”

T. E. Lawrence – Seven pillars of wisdom, 1935, p.250

In the Swiss Alps for many hunting is an integral part of life. When doing archaeological survey work and excavating in the Alps one often comes across little sites dating to the 19th and 20th century: the remains of hunters’ camps, sheltering from the elements, most often under abris, or rock shelters. These sites mostly consist of varying combinations of beer bottle shards, bottle lids, a cartridge or two and drinks cans and – particularly Swiss – small metal pots which contained paté. Sometimes we even find the remains of a fire. The sardine tin, however, is almost always part of these assemblages.

The presence of such assemblages often coincides with us archaeologists finding older traces of humans using rock shelters while hunting or shepherding. These can date back to any period from the Mesolithic to the early modern era.

The photo below I took in 2012 in Lisbon, Portugal. Sardine tins: the universal sign of past human lunch breaks.

Sardine tins on a building site in Lisboa, 2012.

Sardine tins on a building site in Lisboa, 2012.

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,

The history of lithic use wear analysis II – Qu’était l’objet?

The fragmentary nature of many archaeological finds can make our work challenging. The anaerobic conditions of the Neolithic and Bronze Age lake side sites of peri-alpine Europe, however, can provide some very welcome insights into the organic part of prehistoric tool kits. It is no surprise that the almost completely preserved sickle from Solferino inspired French archaeologist André Vayson de Pradenne (1919) to address the still unresolved issues of the use of certain lithic artefacts and the polish that can be seen on them.

This sickle was found some time before Vayson saw it in peat bogs just south of the Lake of Garda. It consisted of a number flint blades that fitted seamlessly next to each other in a groove in a wooden haft. They were glued in with a smooth mastic and protruded ca. 12mm from the haft. The form would suggest use as a knife or saw would be impossible. Vayson commenced on a large comparative study of all known sickle and sickle like artefacts from Europe and the Near East. And although he does not describe them elaborately, he does some experiments, trying to work wood and grasses with sickle like flint tools. He come to the conclusion that the artefacts must have been used as sickles, but also argued that wood as well as grasses can produce polish.

Modern serrated flake with broad band of lustre experimentally produced by cutting straw (x2). From Curwen 1930.

Modern serrated flake with broad band of lustre experimentally produced by cutting straw (x2). From Curwen 1930.

British surgeon and archaeologist E. C. Curwen shows much respect for Vayson’s work, whose 1919 paper he summarises elaborately in English in his article in Antiquity (Curwen, 1930). He is, however, not satisfied with Vayson’s results and does more experiments from which he concludes that working grasses and woods each produces distinctive kinds of polish.

When Dorothy Garrod finds sickle blades set in bone handles with polish from Natufian layers in Palestine, this raises new questions about the timing and process of the start of cereal domestication in the Near East. René Neuville discusses the issue in a 1934 paper, building on Vayson’s work and criticizing part of Curwen’s 1930 conclusions (Neuville, 1934). As a result Curwen decides to do more experiments in order to finally get to the bottom of what causes polishes and to address the domestication questions (Curwen, 1935).

Aiming to reproduce more realistic durations of tool use, Curwen devises a mechanical experiment. He sets a number of experimental artefacts made from two kinds of flint into an electric lathe and as such they were used to `work´ bone, oak wood and compressed straw with (30 minutes each; straw 3500 rotations/minute, bone and wood 2500). The results supported the view that lustre and its development is not just the result of the intensity of use, but also conditioned by the worked material. In the case of these sickles Curwen concluded that the worked material was probably a siliceous plant material of “a yielding nature”. It was thus established that the type of tool, the worked material, the length of use as well as the kind of use all influence the build-up of polish. With this Spurrell, Vayson, Neuville and Curwen had set the parameters for most use wear studies to this date.

It is fascinating to see the photographs Curwen used in both, otherwise relatively sparsely illustrated, 1930 and 1935 publications to illustrate his findings. Although his photos are not microscopic (scale 2:1 and 2½:1), their aesthetics foreshadow those of the microscopic photography of use wear traces on lithic artefacts that have become the norm during the past sixty years or so. The photography used by most presenters at the Usewear2012 conference last September still stuck to these aesthetics, which can be described as a visual vocabulary. Only recently, really with the appearance of digital photography and SEM-technology, do we see a widening of this visual vocabulary within the discipline of use wear analysis.

Lastly, Curwen’s use of mechanic experiments seem to have been rather forwards looking. It has not become the norm in experimental archaeology, neither in use wear analyses, but it might have a future after all. The mechanical experiments allowed Curwen to reproduce intense artefact use with each of the experimental artefacts and enabled him control the parameters of his study and to make direct comparisons between the polish developed on each tool. In a study by Iovita et al (Iovita et al. In Press) mechanised experiments are used to control the experiments parameters and enable reproducibility. Mechanised experiments might also allow for larger reference samples for use wear studies.

Microscopy has not entered the discipline of lithic use wear studies in the 1930’s yet. Researchers had been able to define the factors causing polish and the discipline’s visual repertoire had been established by a small group of researchers working across Europa and the Near East engaged in an international debate, doing experiments and willing to try new methods and to learn from each other.


CURWEN, E. C. 1930. Prehistoric Flint Sickles Antiquity, 4, 179-188.

CURWEN, E. C. 1935. Agriculture and the Flint Sickle in Palestine. Antiquity, 9, 62-66.

IOVITA, R., SCHÖNEKEß, H., GAUDZINSKI-WINDHEUSER, S. & JÄGER, F. In Press, Projectile impact fractures and launching mechanisms: results of a controlled ballistic experiment using replica Levallois points. Journal of Archaeological Science.

NEUVILLE, R. 1934. Les débuts de l’agriculture et la faucille préhistorique en Palestine, Jerusalem.

VAYSON DE PRADENNE, A. 1919. Faucille préhistorique de Solférino. L’Anthropologie, XXIX, 393-422.

steinzeitjäger im wanderweg

Stone age hunters in a hiking trail! High alpine passes, hikers, schnapps, goats and mountain biking, you’ll find it all here. If you are only interested in the Mesolithic, Bronze Age and Early Modern archaeology of the Alps, you will find a scientific report on these test trenches in the Jahrbuch Archäologie Schweiz 2013. An up-dated report will appear later this year in the 2013 edition of the new series Archäologie in Graubünden.

Rückwege Blog

630AF4B4278690B93E82A910C96998CCAC36646Din der aktuellen ausgabe 2/2013 der zeitschrift terra grischuna ist ein beitrag zu einer im sommer 2010 untersuchten alpinen fundstelle in der val forno im oberengadin/bergell erschienen.

m. cornelissen/t. reitmaier, steinzeitjäger im wanderweg. terra grischuna 2/2013, 68-71.


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The history of lithic use wear analysis – the unusual suspects

Spurrell, Vayson, Flinders Petrie and Curwen. Those are perhaps not the first names that come to mind, when thinking of the beginnings of lithic use wear analysis. That would probably be Semenov and Keeley.

As the continuing winter weather is not ideal for working on the experimental work for my PhD, I decided to intensify my research on the history of use wear analysis and its methodology as well as to work on a databank. So while it is snowing outside and the garden where I am to do the experiments is still the domain of a few hardy birds and some brave crocuses, I have time to write about the earliest attempts archaeologists made at determining the use of chipped stone artefacts.

In 1889-90 M. Flinders Petrie finds “a sickle having a compound armature” in Kahun, Egypt (Flinders Petrie 1891, Spurrell 1891, 1892). These denticulated flint blades had been known for a few decades from various sites and were assumed to be saws. However, Flinders Petrie’s finds included an almost complete wooden sickle in which such a blade was still hafted, using a cement consisting of “black Nile mud and gum” (Spurrell 1892). Further blades were found in the immediate vicinity of the sickle and would have formed the remainder of the tool. These artefacts were to leave a 40 year long trace of debate amongst archaeologists. To a certain extend it even continues to this day. It started when Flinders Petrie passed the artefacts on to Flaxman Charles John Spurrell.

What struck me most is that Spurrell uses many of the major analytical methods and evidence applied by use-wear and lithic specialists today. He studies the artefact’s morphology and compares the Kahun sickle as well as the individual blades to those from other prehistoric sites across the Near East and Europe. Amongst these are sickles found by Jakob Heierli at Vinelz, a lakeside village on the Lake Biel/Bienne, here in Switzerland. Interesting is also his discussion of the Egyptian pictorial evidence of the use of these sickles.

Besides the morphology it is, of course, the polish visible along the edge of the blades, that gets Spurrell’s attention. Similar polish was already known from artefacts from other Near Eastern and European sites. However, the origin of this polish is unknown at the time. One archaeologist, for example, suggests it is a patina which builds after excavation in the museums where they are stored. Like many of his European contemporaries, Spurrell decides to do imitative experiments. He notices the adequate angle of the sickle handle, the effectiveness of the tools and his experiments confirm the prehistoric depictions of sickle use. But his experiments are mostly concerned with the polish. To be able to recreate the polish he tries sawing bone, wet and dry wood and horn, but without results. Cutting ripe straw, however, does produce the polish. Furthermore, the polish distribution suggests the working of a relatively soft and pliable material. He concludes that it is the organic silica in grasses or cereal stems causing the polish, thus confirming the direct archaeological evidence. However, the archaeological community of the time was not yet ready to accept Spurrell’s results.

Spurrell does not write about using a microscope as part of his analyses and it seems that not even during the nineteen thirties, when E. C. Curwen enters in a debate with Francoise Vayson, microscopic use wear studies are applied. The study of the use of lithic artefacts does get raised to another level, though. If the weather stays like this I will be writing about that here soon.


Spurrell, F. C. J., 1892, Notes on early sickles, in The archaeological journal 49, p.53-69

Spurrell, F. C. J., 1891, The stone implements of Kahun, in Flinders Petrie, Illahun, Kahun and Gurob. 1889-1890, London, David Nutt, pp. 51-56

Flinders Petrie, W. M. 1891, Illahun, Kahun and Gurob. 1889-1890, London, David Nutt

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,

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Lab I: getting to know my tools

digital microscope

A big day today. While the outside world is covered in deep fresh snow, I started working in a warm lab in at the University of Fribourg, Geosciences today, getting to know my equipement. I will be mostly using this digital microscope for the lithic use wear analyses for my PhD research. It makes fantastic images with a good depth of field. It would even make 3D images, but I am not sure yet if the quality of these is sufficient for my purposes. In any case, it is very exciting to get started.

Early stage PhD conference hopping

In October 2012 I was able to make a second start with my PhD research. Together with Laure Bassin I am now part of the “Gestures of Transition” project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The first scrap of funding was spent bumming around Europe, going from conference to conference. And a great idea it was! Three countries, three conferences, three themes that cover what my career has gravitated towards the past ca. 4 years: alpine archaeology, the Mesolithic (esp. the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition) and microscopic use-wear analyses.

In October I found myself in Faro, Portugal for the Usewear2012 conference
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Die berg komt er!

As an archaeologist, I wonder what the archaeological implications of such a Berg (Mountain) would be. In a way, burying the landscape below a Berg will preserve the potential archaeological remains below it. But what if the Berg would need foundations? And this is quite likely to be the case in the Netherlands. How do the effort and costs of the archaeological work required under Dutch law relate to the value of the Berg?
Is the Berg to be mined in the future? What archaeological consequences will that have?
But what I find most intriguing, is what archaeology the building and the use of the Berg will create? Undoubtedly, the creation, use and maintenance of the Berg will change the questions asked by Alpine Archaeologists in the future!

Rückwege Blog

Niet de berg is het eeuwige, maar het verganglijke, het veranderende van de berg is het eeuwige. J. Slauerhoff

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Unterseen IV: Do you dig with a trowel or gräbst Du mit einer Kelle?

It was almost a rite of passage. Sometime during the first year of my archaeology degree in the UK, we were told to get a trowel. It all sounded quite mysterious to a young foreign student: a WHS 3 or 4 inch pointing trowel. I barely knew how many cm an inch was. So, I went to the small hardware store in the village near the halls of residence where I lived and bought a 4 inch WHS trowel. I remember thinking it was really rather small but it felt great in my hand. I was quite proud, it felt like the beginning of something. And now, more than a decade later it still lies snugly in my hand.

Kellen/Trowels at Unterseen-Untere Grabe

A selection of trowels at the Unterseen/Kreuzgasse-Untere Grabe excavation.

I have moved on now and have worked a lot in the Netherlands and in Switzerland. For many archaeologists in the English-speaking world their trowel is the symbol of their professional pride. It was thus a surprise when starting to work in the Netherlands, that there were hardly, sometimes even no trowels at all on site!
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Grande tour des Alpes III: Las muntognas cloman*

Until now, I believe only one prehistoric find was known from the Val Poschiavo: a stone axe found on the slopes south of the pass. We were thus quite excited to have a look at another find location K. Von Salis (who also discovered the Val Forno/Plan Canin) wanted to show us . In comparison to some of the other hikes of the past few days, sunday’s was merely a gentle stroll. Surprisingly, we already found some archaeology on the way there. Von Salis’ find was also genuine and we were even able to take 14C-samples! I will write more when we have the results.

Bergeller Alpenbitter LogoEver since Majola a bottle of Bergeller Alpenbitter had been accompanying us and a round of celebratory swigs now finished it off. We then rounded up our Grande Tour with a lunch at the Albergo & Ristorante Belvedere, Alp Grüm, where we made the first plans for our next  archaeological alpine adventure!

From August 31st to October 14th 2012 the “Letzte Jäger, erste Hirten/Silvretta Historica” exhibition will be shown at the Rätisches Museum, Chur. Go and see it! If you are not able to, get the revised and extended edited volume:

Reitmaier, Th. (ed.), 2012, Letzte Jäger, erste Hirten: Hochalpine Archäologie in der Silvretta, Archäologie in Graubünden-Sonderheft 1, Südostschweiz Buchverlag, Chur, ISBN: 978-3-906064-05-5

* “The mountains call” (Romansh language)

Grande tour des Alpes II: Muretto glacier, Val Forno/Plan Canin, the Oberhalbstein

The six of us gathered in Chur two nights ago and caught up on the latest gossip. The next morning we drove to the Alp da Cavloc, where we bought some fabulous goat cheese for the day’s hike.
First, we returned to the site of Bergaglia-Val Forno/Plan Canin. Three of our party were also part of the team that excavated the site in 2010 (see elsewhere on haz-rel & under publications). It was good to see that the measures we had taken to prevent further erosion of the site had been sufficient.


We had a goatcheese lunch just below the Murettopass. It had been the aim of one us to use a special auger to measure the thickness of the remains of the Muretto ice fields. This turned out to be unnecessary, as there is not that much left of it and the thickness was easily established.
We spend a pleasant night in the Posthotel Löwen, Mulegns and met J. Rageth in the morning. He kindly showed us a number of sites in the Oberhalbstein. Most were in some way related to metal (iron and copper) extraction during prehistoric as well as historic periods.


Some places show great potential for setting up a research projects and we had some lively discussions already. It would be fantastic if something would come from this first visit. We also spotted some fine abris (rock shelters) that are begging for a test trench! But first it is time for a shower, a beer and a good meal.

Grande tour des Alpes I: Berneroberland

Outside the rain splashes up from the slate and the rocks. We are in a mountain hut near a pass in the Berneroberland and are repacking the first finds. The three of us are here for the Archaeological Service of the Canton Berne.  We received a call from a hiker (by chance a fieldtechnician from another canton) who had found a wooden artefact. He joined us to show us the find location.


Archaeologists of the AD Bern working at high altitude in the Berneroberland.

These new finds are not all that surprising. Throughout the years various artefacts dating to the Roman period, the Late Middle Ages, but also the Bronze Age have been found near the pass. They show the pass’ continued importance.

The weather was good again this morning and we used the occasion to survey some more of the pass region. We have already found a few more artefacts, some of which undoubtedly are of prehistoric date.
Then it is time for stage two, in Graubünden.


Geological folds, Berneroberland

So, if you are ever on a hike or bike ride in the Alps and find something, best leave it in place and please contact the people at local mountain hut/hotel or the cantonal archaeological service.

Unterseen III: Day of archaeology – a day in Swiss rescue archaeology

A bit late, but here it is, my contribution to the Day of Archaeology! Over 700 archaeologists worldwide show us how diverse our archaeological days are. It is also well worth to have a look at some of the many other entries.

A fantastic achievement of the organisers!

Photograhpy – First adventures with an Agfa Synchro Box

My first camera was red with a big separate flash, 35mm of course. As an archaeologist I have used a large array of cameras over the years. They range from normal analogue 35mm SLRs and very early digital cameras (I hardly dare to think about the quality of those photographs!) to high-end DSLR’s. On the site I’m working now we even use a  120mm film Hasselblad!

Most archaeologists seem to have some affinity with photography. And I guess that is true of me as well. It was thus fun to find this AGFA Synchro Box (produced from 1951-1957) in a box in my parent’s house. It must be the very camera with which those little childhood photographs of my Father and his family were made.

So, we cleaned it and we tried a film. It is truly amazing how simple these boxes are! The camera takes a bit of getting used to, though. It is quite tricky to use the viewfinder and determine what will actually be on the photo. Photos 1 & 2 are the results of that first film. The rest come from the second attempt.

Not very happy with the processing of Photos 1 & 2: Ilford Delta 400 Pro, b & w processing, the format of the prints is wrong (lost some at the short sides) and colour printing. Photos 3, 4 & 5 are better (Ilford FP4 plus, b & w processing and printing) even though they are just contact prints. (I then scanned all of them to be able to post them here.)

There is a colour film in the Synchro Box now and I am curious to see the results of that.


Petinesca-Fest - 24.06.2012 - Studen


Unterseen II: the archaeology of a 19th Century road surface – Strassenarchäologie des 19. Jh.s

English text below.

Manchmal bleibt es bis lange nach der Ausgrabung noch ungewiss was Du ausgegraben hast, manchmal ist es sofort klar. Dies war letzte Woche der Fall. Auf der Ausgrabung in Unterseen legten wir zwei alte Strassenpflästerungen frei.

Neben der Stadthauslaube, direkt unter dem heutigen Strassenpflaster dokumentierten wir einen letzten Rest einer Pflästerung, die aus in Mörtel gesetzten Flusskiesel bestand. Das zweite Stück eines Kopfsteinpflasters dürfte älter sein, wurde aber direkt unter dem modernen Teerbelag gefunden. Auf seiner Unterseite waren selbst die Abdrücke der Steine sichtbar.

Vielen Passanten fiel die gut verständliche und wunderschön erhaltene Pflästerung auf und weckte ihr Interesse, sogar mehr als die daneben liegenden mittelalterlichen Mauern. Vielleicht auch weil ihre Urgrosseltern noch darauf spaziert sind?

Zwei Reihen aus grossen Quadersteinen, die tief in die darunterliegende ältere Oberfläche einer Naturstrasse gesetzt worden waren, begrenzen einen ca. 1 m breiten Streifen Flusskiesel. Die etwas grösser als faustgrossen Steine waren nur in lockere Sand gesetzt worden, bilden aber trotzdem eine bemerkenswert feste Oberfläche. Regula Glatz wertet im Moment ältere Grabungen des ADB in Unterseen aus. Sie wies mich auf ein Büchlein hin, in dem ich dieses Bild von 1819 fand. Es zeigt nicht nur das Stadthaus kurz nach der Umbau von 1818, sondern auch eine Bollensteinpflästerung in der Unteren Gasse: vier schmale und ein breiteren Streifen Pflästerung, die durch Quadersteinreihen voneinander getrennt waren.

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Sometimes you do not know what you are excavating until long after you are finished on site. Sometimes, however, you know it all too well. This was the case a few weeks back on our Unterseen excavation when we uncovered an old street surface. It was the second bit we found.

We discovered a first section directly below the present road surface against the old Stadthaus (town hall). A small area covered with river pebbles set on their sides in mortar. The second, probably older, section was also found directly underneath the modern surface. Its stones’ impression in the bottom of the tar covering them.

Many passers-by commented on it. The beautifully preserved street on which some of their great grandparents might have walked still was instantly recognisable as such and grabbed people’s attention. Even more so than the walls in other parts of the excavation.

Two rows of stones set deep into the compacted, older road surface below frame a ca. 1 m wide stretch of pebbles. Although these slightly larger than fist sized pebbles were only set in loose sand, they formed an incredibly stable road surface. Regula Glatz is doing post-excavation work on earlier excavations in Unterseen. She showed me a booklet with paintings and etchings of Unterseen, mostly dating to the 18th and 19th C. And yes, the one depicted here shows the Stadthaus, just after its 1819 renovation with a pebbled road surface in front of it. Four narrow and one wider stretches of pebbles, separated by rows of large rectangular stones.

Unterseen I – temps de repos

Lunch break at the excavation in Unterseen. Archaeological Service Canton Berne, Switzerland)

Lunch break at the excavation. Archaeological rescue excavation of medieval building remains in the small city of Unterseen by the Archäologische Dienst des Kt. Bern (Archaeological Service of the Canton Berne, Switzerland)

The Middle Ages and the Middle Stone Age – rock crystal tools and stone walls

At some excavations you do not really know what you are finding until you are done in the field and in a warm and cosy office again. Rescue excavations of Mesolithic sites can be like that. There might not be much stratigraphy and resources in the way of time and money are sparse. One digs out 50x50x5cm squares and the spoil gets wet sieved for finds and botanic remains.

The excavation of Hospental-Moos was a bit like that. The Urseren valley, between Andermatt and Hospental in Central Switzerland, is being re-landscaped into a holiday resort and golf course. The valley floor – ca. 1500 masl – lies at the crossroads to the Furka, Gotthard and Oberalp-passes and has long been an important valley on routes connecting various parts of the Alps. I already briefly wrote about the 2010 building brief and the partial excavation of a Late Mesolithic site (Hospental-Moos). Now it looks like we will be able to analyse and hopefully publish the results of the fieldwork as well.

Most post-excavation work will flow into the metal finds and the excavated Mesolithic site. Last Friday, I met my colleague in Zug to have a first viewing of the finds, in order to organise the post-excavation work. A large part of the affected landscape was searched with metal-detectors. The metal finds seem to spread chronologically across at least two millennia and a first look the finds-map shows how widely these are spread across the valley floor. At the same time, already now some patterns seem to be discernible. These finds will need to be stabilised and at least those that will need to be included in more detailed post-ex work will need further conservation.

The Mesolithic finds seem to date to Late Mesolithic (around 6000 cal BC). I already expected it, but it was only when I had finished a first artefact count, I truly realised what a fantastic site it is! Due to considerable time pressure, we did not do much on-site analyses and some of the excavated earth was only screened in the lab, after the actual excavation had long been finished. So, to some extend we really did not know what we were finding. The artefacts are almost exclusively made from rock crystal. It is a beautiful material, but from the point of view of a lithics analyst, they take some getting used to. They come almost exclusively from the excavated site. Only a few were found at various locations across the landscape.

So, I am very much looking forwards to the post-ex! For most of us involved, this is a bit of a side project, so it will draw itself over the rest of the year. I will write more when we really get going. At the moment I am excavating part of the Medieval and Early Modern remains of a small city in the south of the Canton of Bern. Very different! I will write more about that soon. You are also welcome to follow my Twitter feed: look for #Unterseen.

Dingos, lynxes, stone tools and the wilderness downtown

After almost two years, I’ll be visiting my hometown again soon. I live and work as an archaeologists in a country in Central Europe where I did not grow up. I was reading John Bradley’sWhen a stone tool is a dingo: Country and relatedness in Australian Aboriginal notions of landscape” the other day. Bradley manages to illustrate and summarize some important points about how past (and present) societies might understand their surroundings much less compartmentalized as we in western societies of the 21st C might do. It made me wonder if the concept of a lithic tool being a dingo can be translated to the (peri-)alpine Central European Mesolithic. Could a stone tool be a lynx instead?

However, intuitively the first thing that came to mind reading about such a complete/holistic worldview did not concern the Mesolithic, but my own life. More than a third of my life I have now spend away from where I grew up. Those ca. 13 years were spend in 6 cities on two continents. All of these cities have grown dear to me, but none of them I know as well as the city I spend my younger years in.

A. Deusser - Arcen von Westen (Lottum, von Arcen aus gesehen, mit Bodennebel, Abendlandschaft an der Maas, Lottum, 1918 - 1924)

A. Deusser - Arcen von Westen (Lottum, von Arcen aus gesehen, mit Bodennebel, Abendlandschaft an der Maas, Lottum, 1918 - 1924.)
Deusser moved to the region I grew up in, during the 1910s-1920s, living and painting in Arcen.

One of the band members of Arcade Fire went back to the neighbourhood he grew up in and wrote the song “We used to wait” about this. Chris Milk and a team from Google made the interactive video The wilderness downtown around it, taking you back to YOUR youth. It is an amazing experience and shows what is possible with HTML5. It’s worth a try (best with google chrome).

My understanding and knowledge of the part of Europe where I spend the first 19 years (and a few more later on) of my life goes back at least four generations, roughly 120 years. It is probably the most in depth and intense knowledge and understanding I will ever have of any part of the world. I guess this will be true for most if not all people who pack up their things and go and live in a new part of the world. Perhaps I will look back at this post in 20 years and think how wrong I was. But maybe archaeologists, dealing with the material and immaterial remains of the past (and present?) in our surroundings find it easier than many others to find stone-tool-dingos – or lynxes – in their newly adapted homes.

 Bradley, J., 2008, When a stone tool is a dingo: Country and relatedness in Australian Aboriginal notions of landscape, in David, B. & Thomas, J. (eds), Handbook of Landscape Archaeology. Left Coast Press

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

Experimental archaeology in a museum – an exhibition review

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

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

Museum Schwab. Biel, Schweiz

Museum Schwab. Biel, Switzerland

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

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

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


Another update on the Marden Henge long-tailed oblique arrowheads. H. Anderson-Whymark has made a great attempt on reproducing the arrowhead. He notes the importance of the thinness of the blank and the amount of time it took to produce this example, in comparison to producing most other oblique arrowheads.

Hafting microliths – from Scandinavian moors to high alpine slopes

Microliths, superstars of the Mesolithic lithic industries in Europe. They come in many shapes and yes even sizes. Somehow we are all captivated by the image of the hunter, stealthily moving through the green undergrowth at the edge of a forest clearing or through a shallow gully in the moors, it seems. It is in one of these moors that the arrow point described by Larsson and Sjöström (2011) was lost. It has long been established that microliths had many uses. Their acting as tips and barbs of arrows was certainly one of these, as this spectacular find from Rönneholms Mosse, southern Sweden shows. Four obliquely retouched triangular microliths attached to the ca. 10cm long hazel wood arrowshaft formed barbs. A fifth microlith was found immediately next to the arrow and seems to have once served as the tip of the arrow. The authors describe it as having an intermediate shape between an triangle and a lanceolate. So, are we in Central Europe solely dependent on Scandinavian finds for our understanding of the use of microliths?

The only other certain Mesolithic arrow point was found in 1951 in Lilla Loshults Mosse, Sweden (Larsson 2009, Malmer 1969). On one of two arrows found here, the tip, a true microlith, and a microblade, acting as a barb, were still attached to the shaft with resin. Two further microblades acted as tip and barb of a second arrow. Interestingly, Larsson (2009) writes that there are good reasons to believe the artefacts were intentionally deposited. At Vinkel and Holmegaard IV, both in Danmark, fragments of arrow shafts have been found (Becker 1945, Troels-Smith 1962).

arrowheads from Lilla Loshults Mosse, Sweden. Malmer 1969

arrowheads from Lilla Loshults Mosse, Sweden. Malmer 1969

Most often, though, we have to use less direct evidence and methods to establish the actual uses of microliths and stone tools in general. Occasionally artefacts are found within the skeleton of a hunted animal, such as the shaft fragment and 15 microliths/lanceolates with an aurochs skeleton at Prejelrup, Denmark (Aaris-Sorensen and Brinch-Petersen 1986). Or they are found in direct association with other archaeological evidence, which might indicate their use. Last but not least there’s the fantastic science of microscopic use wear analysis.

I know of two lithic artefacts with the remains of adhesive still attached to them found in the (southern) Central Alps. Continue reading

Wrapping up the Neolithic Package – a book cover

Ah, archaeological book covers: often as stylish as the clothing worn by the people writing them. However, writing up a small excavation of a multi-period site in the Upper Engadine Valley in the southern central Alps, I came upon this gem:

P. Biagi (ed.), 1990, The neolithisation of the alpine region.

Long before the likes of Pluciennik (1998) and Thomas (2003) were re-packaging and deconstructing the Neolithic, Biagi in 1990 had already tidily wrapped it up: The Neolithic Package in a single, simple diagram.

PLUCIENNIK, M. 1998. Deconstructing `the Neolithic´ in the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition. In: EDMONDS, M. & RICHARDS, C. (eds.) Understanding the Neolithic of North-West Europe. Glasgow: Cruithne Press, 61-83

THOMAS, J. 2003. Thoughts on the `repacked´ Neolithic Revolution. Antiquity, 77, 67-74.


Europäische Tage der Denkmals – Entdecken Sie die Ausgrabung einer mesolithischen Fundstelle in Arconciel/La Souche

Während 2000 Jahren (7000 – 5000 v.Chr.) haben die letzten Jäger- und Sammlergemeinschaften der Vorgeschichte immer wieder dieses Felsschutzdach unweit der Abtei von Hauterive liegt im Saanentalaufgesucht.    Funden (Silex, Knochen, Schmuckobjektenusw.). Wie graben Archäologen? Workshops (sieben, Bogen schiessen usw.)

10. Sept. 2011; 10:00 – 16:00   Infos DEUTSCHInfos FRANCAIS

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


Just a quick update. In a new piece in Past 68, Bishop etal report on the Neolihtic ripple flaked arowheads from Marden Henge which I mentioned before in a article on the aesthethics of lithics. An artefact similar to the ripple flaked arrowheads was found in the collection of Santon Warren in the Norwich Castle Museum.

This ‘long-tailed oblique’ arrowhead might not be as exquisite or even rippled, it does suggest that oblique Late Neolithic arrowheads might regularly have donned elongated tails/stems.

a return to the Jura: expanding horizons

I had not expected such a quick return, but yesterday I was in the Jura mountains again. I visited the excavation of the site of Lutter/St. Joseph. It lies just across the border in France on the very northern edges of the Jura mountain range.

This summer has seen some changes for my phd project. My project will hopefully soon be accompanied by a second phd project. L. Bassin (Université de Neuchtel) will study the lithic technology of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in northern pre-alpine central Europe. This means a slight overhaul of my project too. One of the biggest changes is that we are looking for other sites to include in our study. Lutter/St. Joseph is the most likely candidate.

Near Lutter a clift in the northernmost ridge of the Juramountains allows access into Continue reading

St.Ursanne: middle ages and hazelnuts

There has to be some diversion in the life of a phd student. So on a quiet rainy Sunday a few friends suggested a visit to St. Ursanne, Switzerland. (Thanks for a great day L., Chr. & R.!). I have been living very close to the Jura Mountains for a number of years now, but never actually made it there. It was starting to gain mythical proportions in my mind. So, time for some exploration. The whole day I had a nagging feeling that I should know St. Ursanne, that it was known for something else, besides from being a well preserved town and the medieval monastery.

St. Ursanne, from Kunstführer durch die Schweiz 3 (1982)

St. Ursanne lies in the remote but beautiful valley of the Doubs. You enter the town through one of its 3 towers. The town has bags of charm and it is not surprising that it is rather touristy. At its centre lies the church and monastery of Saint Ursanne. Its predecessor was founded ca. 635 AD over the grave of St. Ursinicus, an irish monk and student and companion of St. Columban. The present church and monastic buildings dates mostly to early 13th C AD and is stylistically truly on the transition of the romanesque to the gothic. The cloister dates to the 14th C AD. The southern entrance is one of the best pieces of romanesque sculpture in Switzerland. Beautiful, but a little mad is the baroque choir. In the lapidarium one walks over a glass floor under which lie scores of those fascinating early medieval trapezoid sarcophagi made of the local chalkstone.

Cloister, St. Ursanne

Sometime this week it finally dawned on me: the Abri Les Gripons lies just northwest of St. Ursanne! I cannot blame the others for not knowing of this site. Although all four of us were trained archaeologists, none of the other have much to do with the Mesolithic. But I should have remembered. The site was excavated in 1986 – 1989 (Pousaz 1991; see also Nielsen 2009) and is mostly known for its Early Mesolithic horizon. Burned earth and charcoal indicate hearths. Finds include mostly calcinated bones and flint artefacts.

My interest is in the Late Mesolithic horizon, though. Continue reading

Microliths, Engadin Valley and a museum visit

The past four wonderful weeks I spend in the Val Tasna, camping at 2200 masl, surveying, documenting and digging sites spread over a number of valleys and dating from the 10th mill BC to the second half of the 20th century. (The second half of the campaign starts august 19th – do contact me if you’d like more info.)

Already in 1976 Clarke suggested that Mesolithic microliths might have been used to process plants material, perhaps as grater boards. Although it is still widely assumed most microliths were used as arrowheads, it has since been established that microliths were used for a variety of functions (e.g. through strong associations with plant remains and use wear analysis). Artefacts like this might show us how.

Tscharesch, Museum d'Engiadina Bassa, Scuol. Thanks to M. "ZwetschKe" Oberhänsli

It is a Tscharesch from the Museum d’Engiadina Bassa, Scuol. It was used for working flax. The metal pins, driven with the blunt side into a decorated wooden board function as a comb which loosen flax fibres. One could just imagine replacing the metal pins with flint Late Mesolithic bladelets or what we often assume to be arrowheads.

Clarke, D. (1976) Mesolithic Europe: the economic basis, in Sieveking, G., Longworth, I., Wilson, K., Problems in Economic and Social Archaeology, p. 449-481, London, Duckworth

Going the distance: Journeys back into the Silvretta Mountains – the Fieldwork Blog

After almost a long year in the office, it is finally time for fieldwork again. This week will see the start of the Silvretta Campaign 2011. The “Rückwege Projekt” is an international and interdisciplinary project of the University of Zürich. It will lead us across some considerable distance, geographically and chronologically. Although in kilometres not that far, excavating the Silvretta Mountains on the borders of Switzerland and Austria does take you into a completely different world. Besides, the journey to our campsite is really quite long.

Chronologically we will be back to where we dug last summer, for some of us it will be the fifth year already. It looks to be the last field season, though. But we will also find ourselves going much further back in time. Mesolithic and Neolithic abris as well as Bronze Age sites and an Iron Age animal pen (incl. occupational evidence) and an Iron Age Alphut in the Fimbertal are awaiting us.

The first four weeks we’ll be in the Val Urschai and on the Plan da Mattun. First a small number of archaeologists will be accompanying geodetic metrologers and geodesy engineers of the Technical State University Zürich (ETH-ZH). They will carry out some fancy survey work. After that there will be two weeks of proper excavation. As every year, we will be visited by quite an army of scholars from different disciplines, geologists, micro-morphologists, palaeo-botanists, geographers and many more. They will do their own research related to the natural and human history of the occupation of the high alpine region.

As last year’s campaign was so successful, we are very curious to see hat this field season will bring. And we are very excited to be able to let you follow our work `live´ on our blog this year, so head over to it now and subscribe!

Can we have a social Mesolithic archaeology yet?


The «6. Interregionales Silex Symposium» – an interregional/-national early summer’s evening in Basel

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of taking part in the highly informal „6. Interregionale Silex Symposium” in Basel. The fabulous weather allowed for an early May bbq and beer gathering, followed by a stimulating evening of flinty-talk.

Acheulean Implements, Kent UK

Acheulean Implements, Kent UK

D. Schuhmann (Germany) started us off with some musings on the Yabrudien in Hummal other sites in Syria. H. Flück (Fricktal), really a Romanist, took a brave step standing up in front of a room full of hard-core prehistorians and introduced us to the fabulously beautiful knapping work of the Mayas. M. Bolliger (Fricktal) subsequently read out a highly informative alphabetic list of 1000 interesting rawmaterial sites in Europe. We will never again be lost for ideas on what to do when on holidays!

The break was spent with more interregional international beer (Efes, Kronenbourg and Bittburger; thanks to the little Turkish shop next door’s tendency to promote cosmopolitism) outside again and used for much valueless networking, the most useful kind.

Flint nodule

Flint nodule; ©Arco Ardon, Flickr

I (Limburg) had the honour to start the second block and gave the audience my take on Kohn & Mithens (Antiquity 1999) so called Sexy Handaxe Theory. D. Brönnimann (Baselländer) then proceeded to succinctly explain us the many things we can not learn from flint thin sections. Dr. R. Jagher (Basel) finished off the evening by giving us a slightly worrying insight into the biology and toxicology of the Tuber silexorum (Common Flint nodule) from a Baseller point of view. After which we just managed to get the last train home (although there are rumours that a few locked themselves in the building and stayed a bit longer.)

Thanks everyone for a good evening!


Quite a while ago again, I wrote a few words on the A. Sediba finds. The fossils have been controversially described as the ancestors of Homo. Now a number of specialists have met at two occasions and discussed the fossils. The arguments seem strong, esp. those concerning the pelvis and brain size, but go and have a look at the Scientific American for a good summary of the discussion results and decide for yourself.

Blogging Archaeology 1 to 5 and VIARCH – when an archaeologist temporarily ceases to be an archaeologist

Many archaeologists identify themselves rather strongly with their profession and I guess I stand accused. However, even archaeologists can’t always be archaeologist. I was being distracted from archaeology for a while working on our house. It’s about finished now and we’ve moved in. As I returned to the world I noticed I have missed two big events in archaeological blogging and visualisation: Okay, I knew I sadly sadly would not be able to make it to the VIARCH-Conference. The Archaeological Eye has more infos on this.

Secondly, as a prequel to the SAA conference session on blogging archaeology, Colleen Morgan of Middle Savagery, held a blog-carnival. For four weeks, she each week posted a question which was answered by various archaeological bloggers on their blogs. These she collected and synergised. A shame I missed it. However, I think it was a fantastic effort and it’s great to see such a self confident and reflective bunch of blogging archaeologists.

Much of my thoughts were voiced by the many contributors, so I’ll only highlight a few issues here and give a Swiss/continental European perspective on some. (Better late then never!) That actually brings me to the first point. It seems there are not many non-English language archaeology blogs around, or they are not well integrated with the English language bloggers. In fact, I know that there are only very few German language archaeology blogs. And I guess, I once again stand accused as I decided to blog in English and not in German (or any of the other Swiss languages or my native language). It would be great if the interaction could become more international.

The questions C. Morgan asked were: 1.) What is the place of this conversation within academic, professional, and public discourse? Simply put, what can the short form do for archaeology? 2.) on the risk of blogging archaeology. What does one share, what not? 3.) are we really changing opinions or moving the field forward? Who is your audience and how to you interact with this audience? What do you want out of interactivity by means of blogging about archaeology? 4.) and lasty she asked how people feel about publishing the blog-carnival. Continue reading

EXPO¦ARCH¦DISS digitally

A good year ago, B. Dubosson, H. Flück and I started EXPO¦ARCH¦DISS, an exhibition of posters of PhD projects concerning Swiss archaeology or by Swiss archaeologists. The posters have been exhibited at the yearly meetings of the societies of prehistoric, roman, medieval and classical archaeology in Switzerland in 2010. Now the posters are also available digitally on the new EXPO¦ARCH¦DISS-website!

We are interested to hear from you what you think of EXPO¦ARCH¦DISS and invite all phd candidates who work on a Swiss archaeological topic to send in a poster.

You can find all information on the website (the French version is in the making).

Digging a multi period site in the southern Swiss Alps

It is a wonderful feeling to see, feel and hear how you scrape free a new layer or feature. It does not matter whether your tool is a shovel or trowel, the tool in your hand moving intuitivelly in the dirt, flicking a stone or taking that little bit more dirt away. Or whether your eyes follow the shovel of a mechanical digger as it tentatively scrapes and collects dirt. The texture, colour and the sound, often even the smell change. The distinctive sound of metal against flint or ceramics. I wrote a while ago that I dug a number of prehistoric sites in the Alps last summer. One was in the Val Forno valley, above Maloja in the southern Swiss Alps.

An amateur archaeologist had found a number of Mesolithic flint artefacts in the eroded sides of a hollowed out single track hiking path (Seifert 2008). Me and four friends spend a lovely week’s `holiday´ digging two test trenches to establish the extend of the site, how much it was threatened by erosion and hikers and to see how much it was still present. We uncovered a number of hearths and have since obtained AMS C14 dates from various hearths and layers, spanning nine millennia[1]. We tried to sieve as much spoil as possible on site, but it was impossible to get through it all, so we carried it down. We dragged roughly 50 bags of 4-9 liter of earth down, helped by some very friendly passing hikers, who volunteered to carry some bags down. (Thank you so much, if you happen to read this!)

Last week we continued the site’s excavation in the labs of the Archäologischer Dienst des Kantons Graubünden (Cantonal Unit of Grison). Bag after bag, context by context, we wet-sieved for finds. Using a column of sieves with decreasing mesh-width, water becomes our tool as we wash the finds from the earth. It is much wetter affair, but we agreed that there is still the wonderful smell of moist earth as soon as you open the bag.

Stampa Maloja, wet sieving and flotation residues

Stampa Maloja, wet sieving and flotation residues

However, it is not just the finds that we look for. Flotation allows the recovery of organic macro remains such as charred seeds, (burned) bone fragments and charcoal. Finds are typically scarce on these alpine sites. Seeds, bone and charcoal can tell us much about vegetation, fauna and climate as well as about the diet of the site’s inhabitants. Charred material and charcoal provide absolute dates through C14-analysis and dendrochronology.

In Val Forno we back filled the trenches and took measures to try to prevent further erosion. In our labs and offices we continue our excavation and hope to find some way (the eternal search for funding) to be able to analyse the finds and organic remains in greater detail.

Seifert, M., 2008, Stampa, Maloja, Plan Canin (LK 1276, 775 090/137 530, 1985 m ü. M.), in Jahresbericht ADG 2008, p.93-94

[1] Thanks to a friendly donation by an architectural practice in St. Moritz!