Tag Archives: alpine archaeology

An era coming to an end? Alpine archaeology will never be the same again!

So, that’s that. Last week I had the honour and immense pleasure to help dig a few trenches at Las Gondas in the Fimbertal, between the Lower Engadin and Paznaun valleys. The Rückwege project was initiated by Thomas Reitmaier in 2006 and this might or might not turn out to have been the last ever field season. 10 years of multi-disciplinary and highly successful alpine archaeological fieldwork have come to an end. It was a fantastic time and a great week away from the PhD. A week in which a wonderful group of archaeologists and friends, who have all been involved in the project over the years, got together to excavate a system of animal pens in the beautiful Fimber valley. We managed to sort out the stratigraphy and expect it to be prehistoric, perhaps chronologically comparable to the Iron Age hut ruins we excavated further down the valley. But, as so often in the Alps, finds are scarce. So, we’ll have to wait for the 14-C dates to come back.

I would like to thank my friends, and especially Thomas, for their companionship, the laughs, the snoring, the Streusel, the EIER, the Schnapps, wine and beer, the snow, Lassiter, the tons of charcoal and the many buckets full of dirt and stone. Do have a look at Thomas’s post on  the Silvretta-Historica blog, which I’ve linked to below as well!

 sodalla – wir sind also schon wieder gut zurück aus dem schönen fimbertal und einer sehr erfolgreichen einwöchigen grabungskampagne im gebiet las gondas  … . das hauptanliegen, die dortigen pferchstrukturen genauer zu untersuchen und hoffentlich im verlauf der nächsten wochen auch mittels 14c-datierungen zeitlich einzuordnen, haben wir mit einem ausgezeichneten und hochmotivierten grabungsteam problemlos erreicht, trotz der mitunter etwas widrigen wetterbedingungen …    (CLICK ON THIS LINK TO THE SILVRETTA-HISTORICA PROJECT BLOG FOR MORE INFO AND LOTS OF GREAT PHOTOS FROM THE FIELDWORK!)

Holidays in a rock-shelter. Early Mesolithic occupation of the Berglibalm in the Bisistal (Muotathal, canton Schwyz).

Last summer part of my holidays was spend with friends in a rock-shelter in the pitoresque Bisistal in central Switzerland. A badger had dug his/her sett in the abri and, doing so, brought up a few bones and charcoal. These were discovered by Walter Imhof, a speleogist, who has discovered and surveyed many sites and caves over the past decades. A small test-trench resulted in some stratified charcoal which was dated to the ninth millenium BC. After more bones and a rock crystal flake were found, it was decided to start a small excavation, organised by Walter Imhof and Urs Leuzinger. We dug a two by two meter trench where the archaeology was most threatened to be disturbed by further digging by our friend the badger, as well as a few more test-trenches to see if there were more areas of occupation.


Abri Berglibalm, Bisistal (Muotathal, Switzerland) during excavation, August 2015.

The results were fantastic! Worked bone finds from caves dating to the Early Mesolithic had been known from caves in the region, but now we found a decent collection of lithic artefacts (total 285, incl. 10 microliths) and faunal remains in a well-stratified, charcoal rich layer (probably the replaced remains of a fire-place). This greatly improves our knowledge of the Mesolithic in the alpine regions of Central Switzerland. Also, it was a fab week with friends and colleagues and a great break from the work on the PhD. Nothing better to clear your mind then listening to yodelling (as well as, sadly, quite a bit of german schlager music of a lesser quality) and friends snorring for a week, drinking mediocre beer, stomping up a hill every morning through a field consisting entirely of cow pads, breaking your back sieving, breakfasting with amazing cheeses and excavating great archaeology!

Mostly due to the fantastic engagement of Urs Leuzinger and the rest of the team, the site has already been comprehensively published in the Annuaire d’Archéologie Suisse (Leuzinger et al, 2016). It includes lithic analysis, ltihic raw-material provencing, charcoal-, palaeobotanical- and faunal analyses. It’s well worth a look!

Die Fundstelle Berglibalm befindet sich in der Gemeinde Muotathal im Bisistal auf 1140 m ü.M. In der 4 m2 grossen Grabungsfläche von 2015 konnte eine frühmesolithische Schicht aus der Zeit um 8100 v.Chr. dokumentiert werden. Die vorhandene Holzkohle belegt Hasel und Ahorn als bevorzugtes Brennmaterial. Daneben kamen viele gut erhaltene Faunenreste, wenige botanische Makroreste sowie ein lithisches Inventar mit 285 Artefakten, darunter 10 Mikrolithen, zum Vorschein. Der Abri diente als Lagerplatz für mittelsteinzeitliche Jäger, die im hinteren Bisistal Jagd auf Steinbock, Gämse, Hirsch und Wildschwein machten.

La Berglibalm est un abri sous roche mésolithique situé dans la vallée du Bisistal (commune de Muotathal), à 1140 m d’altitude. La surface fouillée en 2015, couvrant 4 m2, a livré une couche du Mésolithique ancien datée d’environ 8100 av. J.-C. On y recense des concentrations de charbons de bois – le noisetier et l’érable comme combustibles principaux. Le site a livré de nombreux restes de faune bien conservés, quelques macrorestes botaniques, ainsi qu’une industrie lithique comprenant 285 artefacts, dont 10 microlithes. L’abri servait de campement à des chasseurs mésolithiques à la quête aux bouquetins, chamois, cerfs et sangliers des régions d’altitude du haut de la vallée du Bisistal.


Full publication:

Leuzinger, U., Affolter, J., Beck, C., Benguerel, S., Cornelissen, M., Gubler, R., Haas, J. N., Hajdas, I., Imhof, W., Jagher, R., Leuzinger, C., Leuzinger, C., Leuzinger, P., Müller, W., Pümpin, C., Scandella, S., Scandella, T., Schoch, W. & Warburton, M., 2015, Der Frühmesolithische Abri Berglibalm im Bisistal, Gemeinde Muotathal (SZ), in Jahrbuch Archäologie Schweiz, Vol. 99, 7-26

Popular short text about the site:

Leuzinger, U. 2016, Dachs entdeckt Steinzeitfunde, in Archäologie in Deutschland, Nr. 1.

A short summary (EN) of the first preliminary results can also be found here:

Cornelissen, M. and Reitmaier, Th., In press, Filling the gap. Recent Mesolithic discoveries in the central and south-eastern Swiss Alps, in Quaternary International (to be published 2016; Click here for more infos / a PDF of corrected proof.

Filling some gaps – Recent research into the Mesolithic in the Swiss Alps

It was a scorching hot day in June 2014 in the Italian Dolomites. Now it is Febuary 2016. It is cold and dark out and I can’t wait to get on skis again. Still, it is a good day to think back on that hot June day when Thomas Reitmaier and I presented the results of a decade or so of Mesolithic research in the Alps of south eastern and central Switzerland at the MesoLife conference in Selva di Cadore. It is now available online!

Now you might think, is there any evidence for Mesolithic hunter-fisher-gatherers in the inhospitable high Alps? Well, yes there is. Up to 2007 hardly a handful of surface and loose finds were known. But many hours of dedicated fieldwork by many people have resulted in quite some new information. Thomas and I have tried to pull it all together and write it up. We were not only able to give a good impression of what we know of Mesolithic life in this part of the Alps, but also of what we do not yet know and what is to be done about that!

We are very excited that the corrected proof of the article is now available online as a preprint. So, get in your lazy chair in your snug warm room with a hot bevvy or a beer, look out on the wintery world outside and read all about the marvelous lives of people in the Alps 11’000 – 7’500 years ago. As you do, please also spare a thought for the archaeologists who spend days in rain, fog, sunshine and snow, with or without us, plodding across alpine meadows, climbing obscure passes and help dig innumerable – often empty – test-trenches.

Cornelissen, M., Reitmaier, T., in press. Filling the gap: Recent Mesolithic discoveries in the central and south-eastern Swiss Alps, Quaternary International (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2015.10.121

Until 2007 only a handful of surface finds dating to between the end of the LGM and the Middle Neolithic were known in the alpine regions of central and south-eastern Switzerland. A number of recent rescue excavations, research projects and single finds have now shown the presence of people at high altitude in these parts of the Alps from the 9th millennium cal BC onwards. Both open-air sites and rock shelters are represented. Many sites lie above the valley floor, in the upper subalpine or alpine zones, and on routes to minor as well as major passes. Together with new palaeoenvironmental data, these archaeological finds allow us first insights into the nature of interaction of Mesolithic people in the south-eastern Swiss Alps with their social and natural environment, as well as their relationship with regions further afield. Furthermore, the finds allow us to start thinking about future research into the early prehistory of the south-eastern Swiss Alps.

I am sorry about the pay wall (but, pssst, check the publications page …).
And when this is not enough entertainment, look for the other preprints of paper on the Mesolithic of the Alps that resulted from MesoLife conference. Many thanks to the editors of Quaternary International and the MesoLife guest-editors for enabling us to publish this here!


Skiarchaeology II – Oberhasli, Mägisalp

Whereas the #skiarchaeology I wrote about last, dealt with a site that can be seen from the slopes of the Crans-Montana ski resort, you pretty much ski over this collection of sites. The sites are located throughout the area that in winter is the Meiringen-Hasliberg ski-resort. And while the finds from the Schnidejoch are mostly prehistoric, the structures found here, at the Mägisalp, are most likely to date to the Middle Ages and (Early) post medieval times. Spread across this area, partly in the clouds on this photo, are the two highest Alps in the three-part “Alpwirtschaft”, or animal husbandry system, which is still in use here. How far back it dates, is difficult to say, but the earliest historical record dates to 1372 AD.

Oberhasli - Mägisalp, Switzerland. A relatively archaeologically well-studied "Alp", probably dating back to Medieval or Early post-medieval times.

Oberhasli – Mägisalp, Switzerland. A relatively archaeologically well-studied “Alp”, probably dating back to Medieval or Early post-medieval times.

In summer cows enjoy the herb-rich mountian pastures here, moving up with the vegetation during the summer months. Some of the buildings still in use might have a history of many centuries. But there are also the ruined remains of their predecessors now, in winter, hidden by snow. Sadly, it is often difficult to date such sites, but they still provide us fascinating insights into the cultural history of the region and the Alps in general.
The buildings and ruins have been studied by Brigitte Andres as part of PhD research at the University of Zürich. If you are interested in more, it is worth having a look at these publications:

Andres, B., 2011, Gadmen, Wendenboden. Eine alpine Siedlungswüstung im Oberhasli, Archäologie Bern 2011. Jahrbuch des Archäologischen Dienstes des Kantons Bern, 48–53.

Andres, B., 2012, Alpine summer farms – upland animal husbandry and land use strategies in the Bernese Alps (Switzerland). In: W. Bebermeier, R. Hebenstreit, E. Kaiser uad J. Krause (eds.), Landscape Archaeology. Proceedings of the International Conference held in Berlin, 6th – 8th June 2012. eTopoi. Journal for Ancient Studies Special Volume 3, 279–283.

Andres, B., 2012, Hanglage mit Gletscherblick. Alpine Wüstungen im Oberhasli. Archäologie Bern. Jahrbuch des Archäologischen Dienstes des Kantons Bern, 2012, 220–236

Andres, B. und Walser, Chr., 2013, Drohnen in der alpinen Archäologie. Luftbildaufnahmen von Alpwüstungen im Oberhasli. In Jahrbuch des Archäologischen Dienstes des Kantons Bern, 2013, 107-109


Skiarchaeology I – Schnidejoch

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


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

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

A hike in the Prealps and Mesolithic on the Jaunpass, Bernese Oberland

Mai, June, early summer. For those loving the mountains, latest by now it starts to itch again. Summer has slowly arrived in the lowlands, but at higher altitudes there is still snow in places. The Prealps, or Voralpen in German, are perfect at this time of year. I have been spending the weekends exploring the Voralpen of the Simmental in the Bernese Oberland. Although apparently life is not just about archaeology, it is hard to resist seeing some Mesolithic or other prehistoric sites while there. And thus, a few weeks ago, I passed by the Kilchmoos on the Jaunpass. Many archaeological find spots, mostly Mesolithic, are known in the region around the Jaunpass on the Fribourger side of the pass. But Mesolithic artefacts are also known from around the Kilchmoos, on the Bernese side of the Pass. Other Meslithic sites in the region are located in Diemtigen, Chateau d’OEx and the Simmental (more on these some other time).

Jaunpass, Kilchmoos, Kt. Bern. @Swisstopo

Jaunpass, Kilchmoos, Kt. Bern. @Swisstopo

The Kilchmoos is a small moor at 1505 masl, just south of the pass. During a short survey Crotti and Bullinger found a few dozen chipped stone artefacts at varous locations around the moor. They are all surface finds and no absolute dates could be obtained. But from the artefacts it can be said people left them here during the Mesolithic, ca. 9700 – 5500 BC, probably at least during the earlier part of the Mesolithic, but likely this spot was repeatedly visited by people throughout the period.

Boltigen, Kilchmoos. View from the direction of the Jaunpass to the Gastlosen. June 2015

Boltigen, Kilchmoos. View from the direction of the Jaunpass towards the Gastlosen. June 2015

The area around the Kilchmoos is mostly pasture land nowadays and quite open with great views, for example towards the Gastlosen range. It would be great to know what it would have looked like 9000 or 7000 years ago. Peat core, palaeobotanical study anyone?
After looking around for a bit I continued – with great views in all directions – over the Hundsrügg towards the Relleri. A great day out!

ResearchBlogging.orgWant know more about the Mesolithic finds from the Jaunpass? Read the original report here:

Crotti, P. & Bullinger, J. (2001). Campements mésolithique d’altitude sur le Jaunpass (Simmental, canton de Berne, Suisse) Annuaire de la Société Suisse de Préhistoire et d’Archéologie, 84, 119-124 : http://dx.doi.org/10.5169/seals-117667

Prehistoric rock crystal extraction in the Alps

I have written about the most famous rock crystal find from the Swiss Alps, the Planggenstock Treasure and the use of rock crystal through the millennia before. We know where the Planggenstock Treasure and other recent finds were originally found. Indeed, often we can show historic mining to have taken place in various clefts, there might even be historical written sources.

Prehistoric rock crystal mining sites in the Alps are rare, though. That is mainly because they were also exploited in historic times and this more recent activity has destroyed evidence of earlier, prehistoric mining. At the Riepenkar cleft, situated at 2800masl in the Zillertaler Alps, in Tirol, Austria Leitner and Bachnetzter are able to separate prehistoric artefacts from younger mining debris through painstaking sieving and selecting. They date these artefacts typologically to the Mesolithic and Neolithic (Leitner, 2013; Leitner and Bachnetzer, 2011). Although I realise the work is continuing, I would have liked a bit more detail about how they come to this date. In Switzerland such extraction sites with evidence of prehistoric mining are, as far as I know, unknown. Rock crystal artefacts, however, are far from seldom in Switzerland Continue reading