Tag Archives: Mesolithikum

The “Gestures of Transition” circus is still touring: This week at the Berner Zirkel!

About two weeks ago Laure Bassin and I presented our PhD research at the Universität Zürich. And that’s not it yet. We are very excited to annouce that this Thursday, December 8th, we will be talking (in German) about the “Gestures of Transitions” project at the Berner Zirkel für Ur- und Frühgeschichte. Samichlaus will be off again by then, but it will be a bag full of Mesoltihic goodies for everyone! Artefact biographies, use wear, chaînes opératoires, all based on our research on the lithic material from Arconciel/La Souche and Lutter/St-Joseph. In short the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Switzerland from a different point of view. The Berner Zirkel talks are aimed at the general public. Do look in if you are nearby. We would live to see you there!

Donnerstag 8.12.2016 18:30  –  Universität Bern, Hörsaal 114

Steingeschichten. Das Endmesolithikum zwischen Voralpen und Jura, geschrieben von den letzten Jäger- und Sammler/innen

Mit ihrer für das schweizerische Mittelland einzigartigen Stratigraphie ermöglicht es die Fundstelle Arconciel/La Souche (Kt. Freiburg) 2000 Jahre des Mesolithikums zu erforschen. Die ebenfalls vor wenigen Jahren untersuchte Fundstelle Lutter/St. Joseph (Elsass, FR) dient dabei als Vergleich. Im Nationalfonds-Projekt «Gestures of Transitions» wird mit neuen methodologischen Ansätzen das Ende des Mesolithikums im peri-alpinen Europa untersucht. Im Zentrum stehen Artefaktbiographien und die Kombination von technischen Untersuchungen und Gebrauchsspurenanalysen.

Wie wiederspiegeln sich die tiefgreifenden sozialen und wirtschaftlichen Veränderungen am Übergang zum Neolithikum in der Herstellung und im Gebrauch der Artefakte? Und erlauben sie es die Geschichten, welche sich an den zwei Orten abspielten, zu rekonstruieren?


Experimentally cutting wild boar bone with hafted lithic tools. Photo: M. Cornelissen

The Berner Zirkel is also on Facebook with all sorts of new about archaeology in the canton of Berne and the region.

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.

Gampelen/Rundi, Mesolithic sites on a sand dune in the Swiss `Seeland´.

View over the Rundi dune, Gampelen during the test-trenching campaign for the AD Bern. September 2015.

View over the Rundi dune, Gampelen during the test-trenching campaign for the AD Bern. September 2015.

Sand. Like the sand in a sand box. No stones, no clay nor silt, just beautiful yellow sand. My very first dig was in the southern Netherlands and the soil consisted solely of sand. And it was great! I then spend a number of years digging in sand and I guess, it became my first archaeological “home-soil”. I have since dug in many countries and even more soil types and let me tell you, digging is never faster as in sand. I am not saying there are no challenges in understanding the stratigraphy and archaeology, but it truly is very handy. So when I got a phone call if I wanted to do some test-trenching in a sandy area in Switzerland I was quite keen. When I heard it was in Gampelen, where a number of Mesolithic surface concentrations have been long known and one – Jänet 3 – has been excavated, I was sold!

Two chipped stone tools from Gampele, Jänet 3 (surface finds), found by H. Stucki. From Cornelissen, in Archäologie Bern, 2015.

Two chipped stone tools from Gampelen, Jänet 3 (surface finds), found by H. Stucki. From Cornelissen, in Archäologie Bern, 2015. Drawings: Chr. Rungger (AD Bern).

I took a few months off from the big PhD and although we did not find much archaeology in the way of finds and structures, we did find some and we were also able to firmly establish the edge of the Lac de Neuchâtel here during the Mesolithic. Besides, it was very good to be able to take some distance from the PhD-work for a short while. The surface scatters in the vicinity of our test trenches we now know were, like Jänet 3, situated near small depressions on top of Aeolian sand dunes. In these depressions might have either stood open water or moors. From the stratigraphy it is now also clear that not all finds have been ploughed up yet and some of the archaeology might still be preserved in-situ. So, in a way it turned out to be more of a landscape archaeological project than your average Meso-dig. Since then dendro-archaeologist Matthias Bollinger and the WSL have also established that much of the sand of the Rundi dune must have been deposited in the 10th Millennium BC. Moreover, the wood samples we took during the test-trenching will help to extend the dendrochronological curve of the area a bit further towards the Late Glacial period. And all of that from that lovely sand in the Seeland!

Cover Archäologie Bern 2015

We even made it on the cover of “Archäologie Bern 2015”!

It was photographer Heini Stucki who originally discovered these sites and he has been field walking here the past 30 odd years. The full test-trenching report has now been published and also includes the surface finds from the past decade. A short summery of the results was also published as a “Fundbericht” in the Annuaire d’Archaéologie Suisse 98, 2015.

And when you’re finished looking up the Gampelen report, do have a look at Heini Stucki’s website and his beautiful photos as well!

(With many thanks to the mighty Rolf W.!)


Cornelissen, M., 2015, Gampelen, Rundi und Jänet. Eine mesolithische Dünenlandschaft am Neuenburgersee. In Archäologie Bern / Archéologie bernoise. Jahrbuch des Archäologischen Dienstes des Kantons Bern 2015 / Annuaire du Service archéologique du canton de Berne 2015. Bern, Arch. Dienst Kanton Bern. Pp. 64-67. ISBN 978-3-907663-48-6.    (Zu beziehen in Buchhandlungen oder bei Verlag RubMedia, Tel. 031 380 14 80.)

Cornelissen, M., 2015, Gampelen BE, Rundi. Annuaire d’Archéologie Suisse 98.  Pp. 176-7.

Nielsen, E., 1991, Gampelen – Jänet 3. Eine mesolithische siedlungsstelle im westlichen Seeland. Bern, Staatlicher Lehrmittelverlag.

Visualising lithic use wear traces – photo stacking

It is not always immediately apparent to non-specialists what we – use wear analysts – do and see and how we can be certain of our observations. This is partially due to the imagery many use wear analysts produce. In a recent paper A. van Gijn (2013) reflects on the current state of the field of lithic microwear or use-wear analysis and points out a number of aspects of our work in which improvements are possible or even necessary. These, in my opinion rightly, include an increase in sample sizes (e.g. by scanning tools with a stereomicroscope before moving on to higher magnifications); more incorporation of ethnographic data; a standardisation of practise and nomenclature; embedding the use wear traces in the cultural biographies of artefacts and providing better quality imagery.

The basal end of a Mesolithic scraper from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland (quartzit au grain fin/Ölquarzit). Left a normal photo. Right a composite photo of the same part of the artefact. Taken with a Keyence Digital Microscope.

The basal end of a Mesolithic scraper from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland (quartzit au grain fin/Ölquarzit). Left a normal photo. Right a composite photo of the same part of the artefact. Taken with a Keyence Digital Microscope.

The last point can be achieved by photo-stacking through the use of specialist software or microscopes, such as the digital microscope I use, which are able to make composite photos. The image above shows what photo stacking or composite photos allows you to do.

One major drawback of the microwear approach is the lack of convincing visual evidence. The pictures generally shown at meetings are fuzzy and lack depth of field. Usually only a small part of the photograph is sharp, namely the spot of polish we want to address. Although insiders may usually see and recognize what is being discussed, it is little wonder that the general audience has no idea what it has to look at and remains rather skeptical. There is much to gain from improving the visualization of the microwear traces. – A. L. van Gijn (2013 – p. 3)

Typically, it is difficult to make microscopic photos of larger parts of artefacts that are in focus. Photo stacking, however, allows exactly this: an increased depth of field with much larger parts of the artefact shown in focus. This way not only the traces, but also their contexts can be visualised. I find this technique does not work very well in all situations or for all raw-materials or for all traces. Nonetheless, it makes our work more effective and it will surely allow us to communicate our methodology and findings much better not only to fellow specialists, but also to non-use wear specialist archaeologists and the general public.


Gijn, van A. (2013). Science and interpretation in microwear studies, Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI:

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.

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:

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 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.

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

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 … Continue reading

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

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!

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!

The Aesthetics of Lithics – Marden Henge and Late Mesolithic Switzerland

I have great respect for the prehistoric flintworkers that produced the extraordinary pieces of craftsmanship that stand out from the usual crowd of artefacts and debitage we archaeologists mostly deal with. However, I do not count myself amongst the lithics fans who can dote on these special artefacts for hours. When I saw the picture of these ripple-flaked oblique arrowheads, though, it struck me how much they differ from the late Mesolithic artefacts from Central Europe that I am working with.

Ripple Flaked Arrowheads, Marden Henge. from Leary etal 2010, PAST 66

Ripple Flaked Arrowheads, Marden Henge. from Leary etal 2010, PAST 66

Let me introduce the mentioned arrowheads briefly. First, they are stunning and amazing pieces of craftsmanship! They were found during excavations by English Heritage at Marden Henge, southern England. Marden Henge dates to the Late Neolithic, ca. 2500 BC and lies between Avebury and Stonehenge. Leary, Field and Russell (2010) briefly report on the fieldwork in Past 66. The arrowheads came from a trench in which a remarkably well preserved building was discovered. More on Marden Henge and the fieldwork can also be found on these sites: The BBC site shows a short video and The Guardian website has an article and a small interactive feature. Digital Digging made this nice little overlay video.

Back to the lithics. Leary, Field and Russell (2010, p. 16) write:

“Two exquisitely crafted ripple-flaked oblique flint arrowheads were also recovered from this trench, but with broken tips and one missing barb each. However, if an intriguing broken fragment of flint from another part of the site is correctly interpreted, these arrowheads may have once sported grossly elongated barbs on one side. This long and narrow surface-flaked ‘barb’ fragment closely matches the character and width of the stubs on the arrowheads – so much so that it almost refits with one of them. Such an overstated feature places the artefact well beyond the realms of practicality, and must have been the ultimate show-off item. As far as we know, nothing similar exists in Britain – and even the barbs on elaborate continental barbed and tanged arrowheads are small by comparison. We lay a challenge here at the feet of all flint knappers out there to try to recreate a similar arrowhead and barb.”

What struck me was how different they are from the finest, most sophisticated artefacts from the Central European Late Mesolithic. And yes, I do realise artefacts from different periods and different parts of the world are being compared. It is also not my aim to do a typological comparison, but to take a moment to look at some of the wonderful things we – as archaeologists – have the privilige to work with, to contemplate how a skill can be used in such varied ways, producing artefacts withi such different functions and meanings.

Late Mesolithic Trapezes from Switzerland

To me the small trapezes are the most aesthetically beautiful chipped stone tools from Late Mesolithic Switzerland. These, however, can be assumed to have been practical tools, used and hafted as arrowheads, unlike the “ultimate show-of items from Marden Henge”. And unlike the Marden arrowheads, their beauty lies in their simplicity, their elegance, their practicality. With this technique many highly efficient arrowheads (or other tools) can be produced from relatively small pieces of raw-material (if need be raw-material of lesser quality). They can be routinely made and replaced. There is no reason to suppose they were show-off items, in fact when hafted you would hardly have seen much of them.

late mesolithic trapeze, Central Switzerland

late mesolithic trapeze, Central Switzerland (Foto ProSpect)

That almost seems to be a shame with e.g. trapezes like this one, made of rock crystal (from a site in the Central Swiss Alps). Its beauty, it seems, is in the design, and not in an ostentatious display of skill and luxury as in the Marden Henge arrowheads.

Update here!

Leary, J.,  Field, D.  and Russell, M., 2010, Marvels at Marden Henge, in PAST 66, p. 14-16

Digging a Late Mesolithic site in the central swiss Alps

Last Friday a team of archaeologists – amongst which I was lucky to count myself – finished the excavation of a Late Mesolithic site (at ~1475masl) on a future golf course near Andermatt, Canton Uri, Switzerland.

It wasn’t really planned like that, but this summer has seen me digging in the Alps quite a bit, and I will write a little something about that archaeology here, starting with the Andermatt dig:

Archaeologically supervising the construction of a golf resort

view of the site over Hospental and towards the Gotthardpass

The excavation, carried out by ProSpect gmbh and commissioned by the Canton Uri, was the result of a small – much too small for such a huge area, actually – survey project and building brief at the construction site of a golf resort on the valley floor of the Urseren Valley between Andermatt and Hospental. The Canton of Uri, sadly, has not got an archaeological unit, so that there is hardly any archaeological research, ot even rescue excavation done here and the authorities are not familiar with what it means to investigate archaeological sites. So, we got the work rather late and while the building had already started. Because of the nature of the work[i] and the small budget for such a large area, it was also not possible to investigate the whole of the construction site. It was one of the very first rescue archaeology projects carried out in the Canton Uri (Hess et al., 2010). But the canton is trying build up something and has just announced their cooperation with the Kantonsarchäologie Kanton Zug[ii] This announcement and the site got quite a bit of coverage in the local and national media [see links below].

Rescue excavation of a Late Mesolithic site
Continue reading

Open Day / Journées Portes Ouvertes et Découverte d’une fouille préhistorique – Site d’Arconciel/La Souche

From the excavators of Arconciel/La Souche (SAEF):

Dimanche 5 septembre 2010 – Entre 10 et 16 heures.Non loin de l’abbaye d’Hauterive, les falaises de la Sarine abritent un habitat du Mésolithique.

Sis sur le domaine de l’abbaye cistercienne d’Hauterive, l’abri naturel d’Arconciel/La Souche se trouve au cœur des magnifiques gorges de la Sarine, à six kilomètres en amont de la ville de Fribourg. Largement ouvert au sud-ouest, il offre protection, ensoleillement, surface habitable conséquente et accessibilité. A ce titre, il est considéré comme l’un des plus beaux exemples d’habitat de pied de falaise de notre région, un type de sites qui fut particulièrement apprécié par les derniers groupes de chasseurs-cueilleurs du Mésolithique (9700-5000 av. J.-C.).

Estimé dès sa découverte comme l’un des plus hauts lieux de la Préhistoire fribourgeoise du fait de son très bon état de conservation, de sa stratigraphie de plus de trois mètres et de la richesse du matériel mis au jour (près de 15 000 artefacts en roches siliceuses, éléments de parures et plus de 150 000 restes fauniques), mais menacé par l’érosion, l’abri d’Arconciel/La Souche fait l’objet depuis 2003 d’une fouille de sauvetage qui sert également de chantier-école à plusieurs Universités.
Continue reading

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeology in Switzerland – where we stand now

As usual, the 2010 Jahrbuch Archäologie Schweiz vol. 93 includes a list of newly discovered and excavated sites. It is no surprise that the number of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites discovered or investigated in 2009 is relatively low in comparison to the number of sites from most later prehistoric, roman and medieval periods. The figure below comes from Siegmund’s 2008 publication in the Jahrbuch der Archäologie Schweiz 2008, vol. 91.


Siegmund 2008 Abb. 9, p. 95. Do not be confused by the typos in the Roman and Medieval numbers: the correct ones are 1630 & 1288.

It clearly shows the chronological distribution of the newly recorded or excavated sites in Switzerland during the period 1987 – 2006. It is also noted by Siegmund, that especially concerning the Mesolithic, Germany and France show even worse records (although for the alpine areas this might not been true; see below). Also, about a third of the Mesolithic sites mentioned in the above table are recorded in only one Canton: Fribourg.

Below the numbers of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites, and as a comparison the Bronze Age sites, recorded in 2008 & 2009. It shows ten sites mentioned in 2008 of which five were new discoveries and nine sites mentioned in 2009 of which four were new discoveries, against seventeen and forty-three sites dating to the Bronze Age.

Continue reading

Radiolarite and spring in the Fribourger Prealps

A number of raw materials were used for the production of chipped stone artefacts at the site of Arconciel/La Souche, Kt. Fribourg, Switzerland. Some of you might already know that I am doing a use wear analysis of the finds from the Late and Final Mesolithic abri for my PhD.

Of course, I am curious to see these places and the sources of the raw material of the archaeological artefacts. And it is spring! Here on the Swiss plateau the snow is gone, and in the Alps much has already melted as well. So, with a trusted companion I set out on an expedition to go and find the radiolarite outcrops in the Fribourger Prealps on the Brendelspitz. As guides we had the article by Braillard etal 2003 and the great little book Geologischer Pfad Gastlosen by Braillard and Rebetez (2010) (thank you Luc!).  What these, sadly, did not tell us, was that we underestimated Lady Winter’s resilience and had to fight through leg-deep snow at times. And no, we did not bring snowshoes… By then, we were too foolhardy and just had to get up there!

Radiolarite Braillard etal2003 web

various types of radiolarite, from Braillard etal 2003

The main raw materials used at the site during the Mesolithic are “Ölquartzite”, radiolarite and flint (Braillard, Menoud et al. 2003; Mauvilly 2005; Mauvilly, McCullough et al. 2008). Most of these raw materials are to be found at a not too great distance from the site of Arconciel/La Souche. The closest source would have been the Sarine riverbed. Radiolarite, “Ölquartzite” and some types of flint can be found there. In the Jura Mountains further flint sources are known. Sources of “Olquatzite” and radiolarite are known in the Fribourger Prealps, the range of middle high Alpine mountains in the southern parts of the canton, and in the neighbouring areas of the Bernese Oberland[1]. But I will focuss only on the radiolarite in this post. Continue reading

Mesolithic Interventions

An exhibition at the York Art Gallery. I just came across the website. The gallery seems to have asked “…four artists to create a new installation at York Art Gallery’s studio. Their installation uses photography, video, sound and interactive digital technology to explore the era.” The artists visited the site and had a look at the finds as well.

I wish I could go and have look and see what they came up with. Although the YAG website shows a few pictures, it would be fun to see more, esp. of the digital and sound-work.

Groupe de Travail sur le Mésolithique

Michel Mauvilly of the SAEF has initiated the formation of a «Groupe de Travail» for researches in the Mesolithic in Switzerland and surrounding regions. A first meeting is planned for the end of March or April.

Below the announcement in French and German.

Création d’un Groupe de Travail concernant les recherches sur le Mésolithique en Suisse et les régions limitrophes

Afin de promouvoir le Mésolithique en Suisse et de créer une meilleure synergie entre les différents acteurs de la recherche travaillant sur cette période et de la stimuler, nous proposons de fonder un groupe de travail. En effet, ces dernières  années, plusieurs fouilles importantes, réalisées dans plusieurs cantons, ont confirmé le très grand potentiel de notre territoire dans ce domaine.

Le groupe de travail est ouvert à toutes les personnes, professionnelles de l’archéologie ou non, qui sont intéressées par les recherches concernant cette période.

Nous proposons donc d’organiser une première séance visant à définir le cadre, les modalités et les attentes des différents acteurs potentiels.

Plusieurs dates sont d’ores et déjà sélectionnées pour cette séance entre mi mars et  mi avril 2010 que nous proposons d’organiser à Fribourg.

Bildung einer Arbeitsgruppe zur Erforschung des Mesolithikums in der Schweiz und in den angrenzenden Regionen

Um die Erforschung des Mesolithikums in der Schweiz voranzutreiben und die Zusammenarbeit von verschiedenen, in dieser Periode tätigen Forschern zu fördern, möchten wir gerne eine Arbeitsgruppe ins Leben rufen. Gerade in den letzten Jahren haben mehrere bedeutende Ausgrabungen in verschiedenen Kantonen das enorme Potential in diesem Forschungsgebiet aufgezeigt.

Die Arbeitsgruppe steht allen an dieser Periode interessierten Personen offen, seien es professionelle Archäologen oder nicht.

Um den Rahmen und die Modalitäten dieser Arbeitsgruppe zu definieren und die Erwartungen der potentiellen Mitglieder zu sondieren, möchten wir eine erste Sitzung einberufen.

Für diese Sitzung können wir mehrere Daten zwischen Mitte März und Mitte April 2010 vorschlagen.

Interested? Get in touch with the M. Mauvilly at the SAEF (saef[at]fr.ch) or leave a comment and I’ll get back to you with further details.

AG Mesolithikum, Luzern, CH, 2009

From April 3rd to 5th, the ‘AG Mesolithikum’ 2009 took place in Lucerne, Switzerland. The AG Mesolithikum is really a  group of mostly German Meso-researchers who meet once a year to informally exchange ideas and present their recent work. This year it travelled beyond its German homeland and the meeting was organised by Ebbe Nielsen, of the Kantonsarchäologie Luzern, Switzerland (Cantonal Archaeological Unit of Lucerne).

The Saturday was started with a short but enlightening introduction into the organisation and work of the Swiss Cantonal Archaeological Units, with special emphasis on Lucerne, by Head of Unit Jürg Manser. Willy Tinner followed by discussing the arguments for and against off-site palynological evidence for early cereal cultivation in the Alpine region. Although what he presented was not hugely different from the publication of Tinner etal 2007, it was interesting to hear Willy put forward the arguments in person and to be able to discuss them with him. He made clear that the evidence he put forward was not conclusive, but there is a large chance that Pre-Neolithic populations opened up the forest, especially around lakes and moors, and that around 6500 cal BC an increase in the presence of cerealia type pollen and adventives and apophytes can be observed in many cores. It also once again showed how fantastic the preservation of palynological evidence is in the (circum) alpine lakes.

Jehanne Affolter told us about her methodology for interpreting data on flint raw-material distribution in the circum alpine region. It was brought to the point how limiting the small number of known sites (esp. those well dated and with raw-material data) still is.

Claus-Joachim Kind and Dorothée Drucker presented fragments of 2 reindeer metatarsus from the Holocene site of Siebenlinden II, sth. Germany. Comparative isotope research indicates it would have lived in the same wooded and temperate environment as the roe deer and red deer from the site. D. Drucker next presented how isotope 13C & 15N research could possibly be used to reconstruct the Mesolithic human diet and environment. It seems to me, though, that the few known Mesolithic skeletons from Europe don’t allow for a sufficiently fine resolution yet.

Birgit Gehlen (Blätterhöhle, Hagen, GER), Michael Baales & Ingrid Koch (Kreuztal-Buschhütten & Netphen, GER) and Harald Lübke (waterlogged sites on Rügen, GER) presented new fieldwork in Germany. And Thomas Doppler presented the methodologies used on site by the University of Basel at Lutter, Abri St. Joseph (FR) and Arconciel/La Souche (CH) for recovering organic remains.

Erik Brinch Petersen, the only Danish participant, talked with great enthusiasm about – and showed us many photos of – beautiful decorated amber hangers known from the Danish Mesolithic. On Sunday Michel Mauvilly summarised the surveying work he and his colleagues in Ct. Fribourg (CH) have done. They already located a large number of find-spots in many of the (pre-) Alpine parts of the Canton (e.g. in the Petit Mont, Grand Mont and Oeschels valleys) and their distribution maps show clearly that blank spots on the map are largely the result of research biases. Their search for flint and other stone sources show interesting results as well, esp. when integrated with their survey and on-site work. This also suggests that the lack of knowledge we have of the prehistory of other Alpine regions is largely due to research biases; an observation that is supported by a number of other recent survey projects in Switzerland. But I’ll have to write some more about that in the future.

Thomas Richter (presenting fieldwork at Germering-Nebel (Bayern, GER) and Ebbe Nielsen finished off this part of the conference. Ebbe briefly introduced a site at the shores of the Soppensee (CH), where Late Palaeolithic and Early Mesolithic finds have been made. The Sunday then continued with a tour of the Soppensee and the Wauwilermoos near Lucerne, with its many famous Late Palaeolithic, Mesolithic (e.g. Schötz 7) and Neolithic (e.g. Egolzwil) sites.

Thanks to the organisers at the Kantonsarchäologie Luzern and the participants and especially to Ebbe Nielsen for a few pleasant days in Lucerne.

The lure of experimentalism II

hafting a late mesolithic scraper

hafting a replica of a Late Mesolithic scraper

I have been meaning to post a few photos of the tanning I wrote about in The lure of experimentalism. Here they finally are; with many thanks to Fiona McCullough. The top photo shows the hafting of a replica of a late mesolithic scraper, as found at the site of Arconciel/La Souche, with vegetable tar and synthetic sinew on a hazelwood stick. This turned out to be remarkably easy and robust.

On the photo below Fiona and I are scraping one of the sheepskins. This skin had been dried for a while. Fiona is using a hafted scraper, I am trying an un-hafted scraper, which was far less effective than the hafted tools.

scraping sheepskin with late mesolithc scrapers

scraping sheepskin with replicas of Late Mesolithic scrapers

Below, I also added a photo of Matthias Bollinger’s and my attempt at making birch-tar . We used two cans, one as a container, the other one as a lid. The lid was perforated a few times to allow steam to escape. The can (400ml) was packed, although not too tightly, with birch-rind and produced ca. 3 cubic cm of tar.

making birch-tar

making birch-tar

hazelnut_relations auf Deutsch

Man kann jetzt auch auf Deutsch über mich & meine Arbeit lesen auf der Website der Abteilung Ur- & Frühgeschichte der Universität Zürich. (Siehe Profil, Biographie & Forschung)

I am now also present – in German – on the website of the Abteilung Ur- & Frühgeschichte of the University of Zürich. (See Profil, Biographie & Forschung)