Tag Archives: Alpine Archäologie

For those poor archaeologists that work in the Alps: T.E.A., Taiwanese landscape painting and a bit of facebook

Perhaps October and November are the most difficult months for archaeologists working in the Alps. The summer is over, the first snow already covers the landscape above 1500/1800 masl, so fieldwork is done for the year. To fill this emptiness inside the alpine archaeologist might go skiing, or snowshoe hiking, or ice climbing. However, in all but a few ski resorts, pistes are not open yet. And there is usually to little snow for off-piste skiing and waterfalls are not yet frozen. So, what to do with yourself during these months? Well, you clean your boots, oil your trowel, wait for the results of the radiocarbon samples you have sent to come back, wax your skis. But it just is not enough, is it?
Well, if you are lucky enough – as I am – to live in Berne, Switzerland you might, going about your daily business, come across some of the electrical control cabinets with wonderful mountains scenes painted on them. You can stare at these for a while.

These cabinets were painted in 2013 by Taiwanese artist Jui-Chin Chiu, or Master Chiu. He is one of the advertisement poster painters the Taiwanese Electricity provider Taipower commissions to decorate electrical control cabinets in Taipei and other cities. In 2013 the Alpines Museum invited Master Chiu to come and brighten up the city of Bern a little.


If you do not live in Bern or if this just is not archaeological enough, there is another remedy. Since last summer I act as Alpine Archaeological Correspondent for the The European Archaeologist, the digital newsletter of the European Archaeological Society (pdf). The TEA is send out to EAA-members four times per year. However, it is also accessible for everyone else on the web. There are five regional correspondents who provide archaeological news from the region they work in. Do go and have a look for the latest from European Alpine Archaeology, from the Benelux, Finland, France or Iberia. The news is very varied. It ranges from new publications, exhibitions, portraits of archaeological personalities, conferences and ongoing projects.

HazRel_TEA
We need your help, though! If there are any publications, projects, exhibitions or anything else you would like your European colleagues and the rest of the world to know about, do get in touch with me or the other correspondents! Language should not really be a problem. You find contact details for all of us on our reports. You can also find me here. I and the other correspondents are always happy to hear from you!
Oh, and if that is not enough Alpine Archaeology to get you through these months: follow the Alpine Archaeology Facebook-page!

Kirchenfeldbrücke, Bern. Nov. 2014. Biwak#05: City Mountains. Made in Taipei, Taiwan (Alpines Museum). Artist: Jui-Chin Chiu

Kirchenfeldbrücke, Bern. Nov. 2014. Biwak#05: City Mountains. Made in Taipei, Taiwan (Alpines Museum). Artist: Jui-Chin Chiu

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Ski piste archaeology, elusive hunter-gatherers and WWI – Traversar VIII

Time to finally write a last “Traversar” post for this year. There are really two sides to our Passes of the Grison Project. Mostly we do inventory related work. We survey the study areas and record any archaeological sites we discover. There is of course a research element to this. The archaeology of many of the regions we study is not very well-known and anything we discover increases our knowledge of the (pre-)history of the region. We don’t excavate, though. We do make small test-trenches of up to ca. 30×30 cm or take auger cores at most sites we find. These allow us to evaluate the stratigraphy and if we are lucky we might find artefacts or, more likely, we can take charcoal samples for radiocarbon dating.

Recording probably 20th century military structures near the Passo Bornengo.

Recording probably 20th century military structures near the Passo Bornengo.

The sites we find become part of the cantonal database of archaeological sites. This again allows the archaeological service to react when sites become threatened by building plans, erosion, ploughing etc. Our work in the Oberalppass area is an example of this. You might not realise it, but mountain slopes get bulldozed quite properly these days before they become a ski-piste. Also, pylons for lifts, water pipes for artificial snow-installations, foundations for your favourite ski bar and artificial lakes to hold water for making artificial snow, they all need substantial holes in the ground. A major expansion of the Andermatt-Sedrun Ski Arena is planned. And the Disentis 3000 ski area plans to install a whole system of snow blowers to guarantee its guests a good snow cover. Such plans will become ever more common with increasing winter temperatures and should get appropriate archaeological attention throughout the Alps.

Passo Bornengo. Probable military structures (20th C).

Passo Bornengo. Probable military structures; terracing & building remains (20th C).

So on Wednesday, we surveyed the relevant parts of the Disentis 3000 ski resort. Rudolf Büchi kindly took the time to explain the current plans and let us use the ski lifts to save time. Up in the ski area we were surprised to find quite a few hitherto unknown archaeological sites as well as further archaeologically interesting areas. It will be very very interesting to have a more detailed look at the finds we made and see the dates we get from the charcoal samples we took. Other areas, however, have already been heavily disturbed by previous building activities.

The days after this we were lucky the weather got a bit better. We turned our attention to the upper part of the Val Maighels and the Val Strem. In both valleys we recorded a number of building remains, which may relate to transhumance activity of Medieval or post-Medieval date. One of these, near the Chrüzlipass in the Val Strem, might well be much older. Very exciting. Hunter-gatherers and shepherds remained rather elusive, as so often. However, both on the Passo Bornengo and the Chrüzlipass we were surprised to find substantial building remains. These are almost certainly military, probably part of the fortifications made during the WWI. Later 20th century military structures are often well recorded, but few records exist of these WWI fortifications. Although Switzerland was neutral during WWI, mobilisation did take place and many passes were fortified. The canton of Graubünden/Grison has started to record some of these, hopefully other cantons with strategic passes will follow this example soon.

Val Maighels, near Passo Bornengo.

Val Maighels, near Passo Bornengo.

The finds we made in these two valley reflect the situation we found the rest of the week as well. Despite the not ideal weather, we have been able to do almost everything we wanted. Also, our expectations based on our desk-based work have been fulfilled. So also methodologically, we seem to be on the right track. Concerning those elusive hunter-gatherers, perhaps they did not leave many traces, perhaps these can only be found with more intensive surveying and more test-trenching.

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

In the Swiss national newspaper NZZ, Urs Hafner wrote an eloquent short but critical review of the current Pile dwelling-exhibition in the Bernisches Historisches Museum titled `Historische Phantasie´ (in German). His criticism focuses on the little attention the Neolithisation process gets in the exhibition and the large panels showing scenes of daily live in Neolithic and Bronze Age Pile dwelling villages. (My review can be found here.)

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

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

First, it should be said that by the time of the oldest known Swiss pile dwellings (~4300 BC), the processes of Neolithisation in Switzerland and surrounding areas can be considered concluded (`Neolithic Revolution´ is by archaeologists today seen as an antiquated term). Already 1000 years before the first lake side villages sedentary farmers were living in regions north of the Alps, including Switzerland (e.g. at Gächlingen, Schaffhausen, Bottmingen/Bäumliackerstrasse, Basel and Herznach-Unterdorf, Aargau).

Hafner’s main criticism is the projection of our believes and subjective interpretations on aspects of the lives of past peoples. He wonders whether we know how houses were furnished and whether we actually know if people had chairs and tables in their houses or not. Actually, I believe it can be assumed we do know. As the exhibition shows the preservation at these sites is of such quality that if such items of furniture were common, we would have found them. We also know there were fireplaces in the houses, we know which artefacts were found where within a settlement, so also whether that was within houses or not. We can often tell how certain artefacts were used and what people ate. This amazing range of archaeological evidence allows us many unexpected insights into the daily lives of prehistoric people.

Lastly, archaeology is a science which studies the lives of past people through their material remains. And although we can never assume to be objective – we archaeologists are too much part of our own culture – we have a large and ever-increasing knowledge and understanding of prehistoric people, not in the least because of advances in other scientific subjects with which we cooperate, such as physical anthropology and palaeoenvironmental sciences. But yes, some of our interpretations are just that, interpretations. That is our job as archaeologists, to collect the archaeological evidence using up-to-date scientific methods, to subsequently interpret this evidence to our best ability and share our findings with the public. It goes without saying, we do this from our own position in the world. But doing so we also incorporate the current knowledge base of the discussed period as well as others, here in Switzerland and beyond. Moreover, this is a cumulative knowledge, gathered by scientists throughout the past few hundred years.

The panels in the exhibition show what we know about the people living on the lakes between 4300-800 BC resulting from the described scientific processes and the most likely interpretation of this knowledge. And that there is some fiction in them – as there is in the paintings by Anker albeit far, far more – should be clear to visitors. As archaeologists we use such visualisations to show what we know about (pre-)historic life. The medium dictates that this is impossible without including some fiction, in the same way a historical novel does, although less of course. So, should we make the general public read scientific reports instead? Stop making reconstruction visuals? Stop writing historical novels or cartoons and designing exhibitions? Or provide an accompanying books which are to be read before visiting the exhibition? I think not.

Archaeology and visual representation have a long history together. This includes photography and drawing. Both are an integral part of the archaeological process, drawing arguably a bit more. Drawing is deeply integrated in the archaeological processes of recovery, understanding and interpretation. This already starts during the excavation and continues afterwards. Producing field plans, phase plans and finds drawings help the archaeologist understand the evidence from the past (Wickstead 2008). Scenic reconstructions are a further step in this process. When making a new scenic interpretation of the finds from the Iron Age archaeology at the salt mines of Hallstatt, Rescheiter et al (2013) have written a scientific text to accompany it and explain their decisions on what to show and why. (There exists an extensive literature on the visualisation of archaeology which cannot all be dealt with within the space of a blog post). This will be interesting for fellow scientists, perhaps less so for a general audience in an exhibition. Forster (2012) takes a different approach. She shows the making of a scenic reconstruction of the interpretation of a shepherd’s shelter and the find from it. It poignantly shows what the archaeological evidence is and what interpretation. I could, for example, also imagine documenting the process of the making of scenic panels such as those shown in Bern in film, which can be shown as part of the exhibition. It is now up to the exhibition makers in Bern whether they see it fit to provide more information concerning these panels or not. As an archaeologist I’d be interested in their opinion. Certainly it is in itself a success that the panels are being discussed at all.

Dominic Groebner Hans Reschreiter NHM Wien 2012

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

That does not take away that to not attempt to interpret would be a serious deficiency on the side of the archaeologists. So it is not that we archaeologists do not want to look upon the `Pfahlbauer´ objectively, or in Hafner’s words `ohne Projektionen´. But firstly these panels might be less subjective than might be expected (we do know, for example that the Lady of Spiez-Einigen was buried lying on a sheepskin) and secondly, we simply have no choice but to be – to some extend – subjective. And even if we could travel back in time, we could still not truly know what it was to be a farmer living on the Lake of Biel in 1800 BC.

ResearchBlogging.org

Literature

 

Forster E. (2012). Vom archäoligischen Befund zum Lebensbild, Reitmaier, Th. [Hrsg.], Letzte Jäger, erste Hirten. Hochalpine Archäologie in der Silvretta, Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden, Chur, 67-69. DOI:

Reschreiter, H. , Pany-Kucera, D. & Gröbner, D. (2013). Kinderarbeit in 100m Tiefe? neue Lebensbilder zum prähistorischen Hallstätter Salzbergbau, Karl & R. Leskovar, J. [Hrsg.], Interpretierte Eisenzeiten. Fallstudien, Methoden, Theorie. Tagungsbeiträge der 5. Linzer Gespräche zur interpretativen Eisenzeitarchäologie. Studien zur Kulturgeschichte von Oberösterreich, 37 25-38.

Wickstead, H. (2008), Drawing archaeology, in Duff, L. & Sawdon, Ph. [eds.], Drawing: the purpose. Bristol, U.K., Intellect Books. 13-27

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 – Surveying the passes of Graubünden

Outtake from the IVS-GIS. © http://map.geo.admin.ch

Outtake from the IVS-GIS. © http://map.geo.admin.ch

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!

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.

Literature

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