Tag Archives: rescue excavations

From the Mesolithic to the Bronze Age and back again

It is not all Mesolithic in this archaeologist’s life. Last year around this time I took a break from my PhD-research, mainly to earn some money. It turned out it was not bad either to gain some distance from it and to then return to it with a fresh mind almost a year later. It also meant this blog went on a little hiatus. But isn’t it amazing, that after more than 10 years (!!!) it’s still going?! In the meantime, I joined a small team of the Service Archéologique du canton de Berne on a rescue excavation of a Middle/Late Bronze Age settlement near the Lac du Bienne in western Switzerland. It was a geologically interesting location and the site helped to fill a chronological and geographical hole in the prehistory of the region. The famous lake side villages give us a good understanding of the region’s occupation during the Late Bronze Age and the Neolithic. The period in between is sadly less well known in the region. Because of their early discovery and the amazing preservation of organic materials, the focus of archaeologists in the region has long been on these lake side villages. What took place during prehistory beyond these lakes was considered less interesting. The past years has seen a number of rescue excavations and research projects addressing these themes and our excavation of “Sutz-Lattrigen Hauptstrasse 57, 59, 59a” plays its own small part in that.

You wouldn’t think it from this photo, but for most of the excavation we were very lucky with the weather. This changed in December…

You wouldn’t think it from this photo, but for most of the excavation we were very lucky with the weather. This changed in December…

Our initial report has now been published in the Jahrbuch Archäologie Bern 2018 (full citation below). We were able to excavate part of a settlement dating to the Bronze Age C/D – Ha A1 (that is the Middle to Late Bronze Age). Apart from building remains (C14-dated to around 1500-1270 cal BC) and a large amount of ceramics and some metal finds, we also discovered a large cup-marked erratic boulder (“Schalenstein” in German). In fact, it was a regular visitor to the site, 8-year-old budding archaeologist Nahly P. who discovered the cup marks! She lives nearby and often came to visit us with her mother or grandmother to see what we were finding and helped us, of course using her own brush and trowel. The erratic seems to have been placed in a pit with some care and deliberation, together with four smaller boulders. Three of the latter were placed at the same depth in a row in front of the section with the cup marks. Many cup-marked stones are known from the region and from Switzerland in general. Few, however, are found in a prehistoric settlement context and few are secondarily deposited in a pit. When and why this happened will remain unknown for now. Two radiocarbon dates from small charcoal flakes taken from the pit fill date to the Middle Ages, but sadly this tells us very little as it is hard to known how and when these tiny charcoal particles got into the fill.

Finding this cup-marked stone reminded me of something Prof. Richard Bradley wrote in his classic The passage of Arms:

“Much of the difficulty is created because only two stages of the life cycle of an artefact can actually be observed: its production and its final deposition. What happened in between needs to be inferred.” (Bradley 1990, p.33)

Now I am back working on my PhD about the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Switzerland and the Jura Mountains. You can find out more about the site in Sutz-Lattrigen, the finds and the cup-marked stone in the Jahrbuch Archäologie Bern 2018. A short note also appeared in the Jahrbuch Archäologie Schweiz 101, 2018.

The crack team of the Service Archéologique du canton de Berne excavating at Sutz-Lattrigen-Hauptstrassse 57, 59, 59a.

The crack team of the Service Archéologique du canton de Berne excavating at Sutz-Lattrigen-Hauptstrassse 57, 59, 59a.

Cornelissen, Marcel; Ramstein, Marianne; Stapfer, Regine; Zaugg, Pascal (2018), Sutz-Lattrigen, Hauptstrasse 57, 59, 59a. Eine mittelbronzezeitliche Siedlung über dem Bielersee. In: Jahrbuch des Archäologischen Dienstes des kantons Bern, S. 107-109.

Cornelissen, Marcel; Stapfer, Regine (2018), Sutz-Lattrigen BE, Hauptstrasse 57, 59, 59a. In: Jahrbuch Archäologie Schweiz (101), S. 188.


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

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

Kellen/Trowels at Unterseen-Untere Grabe

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

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