Prehistoric lake dwellings make World Heritage List


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The prehistoric lake dwellings of the Alpine region are to be added to the Unesco World Heritage List, as proposed by Switzerland and five other European countries. These sites provide a unique glimpse of life in the earliest agricultural settlements from 5,000 to 500 BC. 

A lake-dwellers’ village reconstructed at Wauwil in canton Lucerne [Credit: Keystone]

They lie deep in lakes or buried in sand on lake shores. Yet for Unesco, they qualify as part of the cultural heritage of humanity: the pile-dwelling sites (as they are called) constitute some of the most important archaeological evidence of the ascent of man between the Neolithic and Bronze Ages.
The water and the sand of the lakes have created exceptional conditions in which this immense record of prehistory has been preserved. The organic material used by our distant ancestors – wood, leather, bone, cloth and even left-over food – is preserved much better than anywhere else in this aquatic environment, protected as it is from exposure to air, inclement weather and the forces of human destructiveness. 

First discovered a century and a half ago, the pile-dwelling sites of the Alpine region have provided specialists with a unique opportunity to reconstruct what life was like in early societies of farmers and herdsmen during the millennia before Christ. These sites point to the missing link in the chain between the hunter-gatherers of pre-history and the first European civilisations. 

Skilful peoples 

The first traces of an ancient lake-dwellers’ village were found in Lake Zurich in 1854, a year in which the waters of the lake dropped to an exceptionally low level. Excavations revealed hundreds of wooden piles, driven into the earth, along with all sorts of unusual objects, extremely well preserved.

The discovery received attention all over Europe. In the decades that followed, remains of similar settlements were found on the shores of lakes in other European countries, notably in the Alpine region.

 Prior to the discovery, archaeological investigation of pre-history had found evidence of human mortality more than anything else – tombs, weapons and military strongholds – and so the lake-dweller villages provided the first testimony to the everyday life of European peoples between 5,000 and 500 BC.

In the earliest times, communities were generally small, made up of less than fifty people, divided up into five or ten households. Later, during the Bronze Age, villages might number up to 50 households comprising several hundred people. The inhabitants lived by agriculture – almost exclusively cereals – and raising cattle, sheep and pigs, but also by hunting and fishing, and gathering herbs and fruits in the surrounding woodlands. 

Utensils of wood and stone, shoes and clothing made of treated bark, pottery, jewellery, wheels, dug-out canoes and the first products of metalwork bear witness to the skills of the lake-dwellers. They document the technological, economic and social development of an era which still remains shrouded in mystery. Even today we know hardly anything of the culture, customs and language of these far-off ancestors. 

National myth 

The rediscovery of the first traces of pile-dwellings in Switzerland gave rise to a picturesque image of people living on the waters of lakes in houses built on wooden platforms supported by piles and linked to one another by footbridges. Exhibitions, paintings, calendars, school books and novels fed the myth of the lake-dwellers for decades afterward.

The lakeshore settlements, found in different regions of Switzerland, also fed the idea that the various Swiss cultures shared a common origin, thus helping to bolster a sense of national identity in the country which had only acquired a centralised government in 1848. It was not by accident that the Swiss government chose a painting of a lake village to represent Switzerland at the Paris World Exhibition of 1867.

As time went on, however, archaeological research showed that lakeshore villages were built throughout the Alpine region thousands of years ago and that they were inhabited by some thirty different peoples. The houses were not in fact built on platforms out on the water.

“In those days the lakes were smaller: the villages were built on dry land or in marshy areas. The piles really served to protect the inhabitants from flooding, since the water level varied much more than it does today,” Christian Harb, head of the heritage project on pile-dwellings, told 

International effort 

Whereas a century ago the pile-dwelling sites were used to conjure up a Swiss identity distinct from that of neighbouring peoples, they have now become a project to bring together the countries of the Alpine region. 

Promoted and led by Switzerland, the proposal of the sites to Unesco was supported by France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Slovenia. In all, 111 sites in the six countries, 56 of them in Switzerland, are now to be included in the world heritage listing.

“The international nature of this project was certainly appreciated by Unesco, which encourages cultural cooperation between member countries,” said Christian Harb.

“Our proposal was also favoured by the fact that there have been very few prehistoric sites on the world list so far, and that, unlike other projects, the pile-dwellings have no potential for tourism – since they are all under water.”

The authors of the proposal hope, however, that their success will serve as a renewed stimulus for archaeological research and make the museums and exhibition sites which feature the lake villages known to a wider public. Last but not least, they hope it will result in preservation initiatives – the lake waters have kept their precious secrets well, but will not do so for ever. 

Author: Armando Mombelli | Source: Swissinfo [June 27, 2011]



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