Neolithic Lake Dwellings in the Alpine Region

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The Iceman . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 392

Arbon-Bleiche 3 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 395

Neolithic lake dwellings of circum-alpine central Europe are found in Switzerland and southern Germany (mostly around Lake Constance), Bavaria, northeastern France, northern Italy, western Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Albania, and Greece. These Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements, with their spectacularly preserved wooden and organic objects lying beneath the water table, are found near modern lakeshores or in peaty areas. Most of these Neolithic settlement layers are located in the Swiss midlands between the Jura mountain range and the Alps on the major lakes. Intensive highway and railroad construction between 1960 and 2000 in Switzerland, often along lakeshores or crossing peaty ground, brought to light many prehistoric settlements. Continuous development projects in big cities like Zurich, located on lakes, also resulted in the discovery of new lake dwelling sites.

What did these lake dwellings look like? Archaeologists can find an answer to this question by looking at modern waterside dwellings in Southeast Asia and West Africa, but these villages normally are situated along riverbanks, not by lakes. Most such houses are constructed on high wooden posts because of seasonal variations in river levels. This might be one of several reasons that prehistoric lake dwellings sometimes were built above the ground, although ground-level houses also existed. Each site is different, however, and unstable ground also might explain the use of these long posts to support dwellings.


In Switzerland many sites came to light around the bigger lakes, among them, Lake Neuchâtel, Lac du Bienne, Lake Zurich, Lake Zug, and Lake Constance. Lakeshore settlements are less common around Lake Geneva. The reasons are not known, but differences in topography and environment as well as less survey work may be possible explanations. There also are lake dwellings around smaller lakes and in or near peat bogs.

The distribution of lake dwellings is determined largely by preservation, modern construction activities, and the intensity of survey work. Climatic conditions, prehistoric human impact, and the topographic situation are chiefly responsible for how eroded the sites are by lake action or the flow of rivers into the lakes. Because lake dwelling layers lie below the water table, there is no oxygen in the layers. Aerobic bacteria, which are responsible for decay, are thus scarce, and organic materials—such as fruits, seeds, leaves, wood, and even fragments of textiles—frequently are preserved. As with sites in dry sediments, animal bones, flint, or stone tools and ceramics also are present but in much better condition. Tools made from animal bones or from red deer antler, for example, are preserved with all their manufacture and use wear clearly visible (fig. 1).

Swiss Neolithic lake dwellings were built between 4300 b.c. and 2450 b.c. Because of differences in the conditions of preservation, certain time periods (e.g., 3800–3650 b.c.) are well documented with many sites, and other periods (e.g., 3600–3400 b.c. or 3370–3250 b.c.) have gaps, with no known sites, from several decades to more than 100 years. There probably were villages, but they were not preserved.

Owing to superb preservation and the fact that wood was the most widely used construction material, many wooden house construction elements, such as posts and planks, survive, allowing archaeologists to date the lake dwelling sites precisely. The dating method of dendrochronology exploits the fact that tree growth is influenced by unstable climatic conditions that change from year to year. Tree-ring thickness likewise varies every year. During the spring and summer of a year when the weather has been favorable, trees form a broad tree ring. In a year with unfavorable weather, trees form only a thin ring. The thickness of the tree rings can be measured, and thickness curves can be connected by comparison with sequences from trees of known date, starting with wood from a modern tree, continuing with a piece of wood from an old house, and ending with prehistoric wood (e.g., lake dwelling posts).

It is possible, in fact, to date oak in central Europe back as far as twelve thousand years. This method requires a piece of wood with a minimum of thirty tree rings and is most precise when the outermost tree ring is still present. With dendrochronological methods one can date the wood from lake dwellings to within a year or even a season (spring–summer or autumn–winter) of its cutting, even when settlements are 4,500–6,500 years old. Other dating methods, such as carbon 14 or typology, help researchers place these sites within a chronological context.


Written sources dating to the fifteenth century refer to the remains of old settlements in Swiss lakes. Often the authors recognized the fields of posts when the water level of the lakes sank or the water was clear. Ferdinand Keller, president of the Antiquary Society in Zurich, examined many such finds, discovered by different Swiss lakesides during construction work. It was only in 1854, however, that he recognized that these wooden posts, animal bones, and other artifacts came from prehistoric settlements.

In the winter months of 1854 the water level in Lake Zurich was exceptionally low. People in the village of Obermeilen decided to build a wall to extend the land. Wooden posts, animal bones, and artifacts of stone, bone, and clay were unearthed. A local teacher, Johannes Aeppli, collected the finds and presented them to Keller, who realized that they must be from a prehistoric settlement. Keller first published these discoveries in a newspaper on 17 March 1854. The discoveries and their publication garnered worldwide interest. Subsequently, finds from these prehistoric settlements are in museum collections around the world.

In the following years there were many more excavations of lake dwellings. From analogy with ethnographic examples from Southeast Asia, Keller interpreted the fields of excavated posts as construction elements of house platforms. Today it is known that these fields are composed of posts from several settlement layers. Dendrochronological dating permits archaeologists to discover which posts belong together as individual houses. The findings from these wooden construction elements, along with various artifacts and plant and animal remains, have all been detailed. Ludwig Rütimeyer identified and published information concerning animal bones from several lake dwellings, and Oswald Heer did the same for plant remains. Even with what is known today, and despite the imprecise dating of the finds, both scientists published accurate identifications of these remains and interpreted them in stimulating ways. Thus began a long and venerable tradition of archaeozoological and archaeobotanical research in Switzerland.


The stratigraphy or "cultural layers" of lake dwelling settlements have a dark brown color that comes from the plant remains they contain and stains even the animal bones. If there are several cultural layers preserved at one site, they usually are separated by naturally deposited white lake sediments, the socalled lake marl. Stratigraphic profiles typically display mixed deposition, with dark brownish cultural layers and white natural layers. The lake marl was deposited when the lake levels rose and covered the villages by more than 1–2 meters.

Wooden posts or postholes where posts were removed can be seen in the cultural layers. Dendrochronological samples are taken from each extant post. When the dates and position of each post are determined, individual houses can be reconstructed from the confusing mass of posts. During excavation the location of each artifact is recorded, making it possible to reconstruct special activity or storage areas. The animal bones and normal kitchen and food refuse are collected by square meter or even smaller units, allowing archaeozoologists to detect possible differences in diet between households. All botanical remains cannot be collected, so they are sampled. These soil samples are wet-sieved through varying mesh sizes to separate the remains into units of different size. These sub-samples contain botanical remains as well as bones from fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, small and large mammals, and even the remains of insects. Identification of all these organic remains helps archaeologists reconstruct the diet of the inhabitants and tells something about agricultural practices and the environment.


Environment. During the fifth and fourth millennia b.c. the Swiss alpine foreland was covered by forest, with only small, naturally open areas. The settlers needed to clear forest to create fields for cultivation. At first, these arable fields were small. The densely forested landscape could not support large herds of domestic animals. It is thought that in summer, cattle must have been led into the forest for grazing, whereas in winter people collected and stored leaf fodder for them. It is likely that in winter the animals grazed around the settlements and ate winter fodder, such as fern leaves, blackberry leaves, and catkins (as analyses of their excrement show). These limited food supplies would have kept herd sizes small, however. As the human population grew, bigger fields were needed, and the human impact on the environment became more profound. From about 3000 b.c. more remains of plants from open fields are present in soil samples taken from settlements. Bones of birds and mammals, such as hare, typical of open landscapes, become more numerous in the faunal assemblages. Because the landscape around the villages was used more intensively, wild animals, such as aurochs or moose, were driven out of their habitats and become rarer in the excavated material.

Human activities also gradually altered the lakeshore area. Continuous clearing resulted in larger areas of open landscape, so that rain eroded soil, causing more minerals to flow into the lakes. Together with all the waste from the villages, the lake waters slowly became more eutrophic. This process can be traced from around 3500 b.c. in the reed belts bordering the lakeshores. These reed belts created special habitats for water birds and a haven for big pike. With the opening up of the landscape for more arable lands and fields at the end of the Neolithic lake dwelling period, increasing numbers of domestic animals, especially cattle, could be kept. Thus, after 3400 b.c., wooden wheels and carts started to be employed at these settlements.

Villages and Houses. The lake dwelling villages of the alpine foreland were constructed on a soft, porous ground surface of lake marl near the lakeshores. Deep-sunk posts were needed to stabilize the houses. Normally, wall and roof construction was separated from the construction of the floors. Different kinds of posts and post sizes and distinct types of wood were used in various parts of the dwellings. Because the ground was soft, the floors had to be rebuilt every four to five years and the wall posts renewed. This explains the presence of postholes without posts.

Smaller posts and planks between the main upright posts were used to construct the walls. Thin hazel withes were woven between the smaller "posts," and clay was smeared over the wall to fill in gaps. Some roof shingles were made of white fir. Most of these houses were 6 to 12 meters long and 3 to 6 meters wide. Some houses were divided into two rooms, one large room with a fireplace and a smaller one. Clay ovens also were built. It is thought that the roof spaces were used as sleeping and storage areas.

About every ten years these houses needed to be renewed or rebuilt. The dendrochronological dates reveal that the life span of a village, as elsewhere in the Neolithic world, would have been ten to thirty years. Houses stood in two or more rows and typically were oriented with their shorter sides facing the water. The distances between the long sides of the houses were very small. Villages of various sizes, ranging from 500 to 10,000 square meters, are characteristic of the third and fourth millennia b.c. There could have been villages with only six to ten houses but also villages with as many as one hundred houses. If six to eight persons occupied each house, populations may have ranged from fifty to eight hundred people. Larger villages tended to become more numerous over time as the population grew until the end of the Neolithic, with ever more intense human impact on the environment.Vessels. The house was the center for large families of several generations. Cooking was carried out at the fireplace, where pots of cereals, herbs, meat, or fish cooked with herbs for several hours. The pots were large, up to 40 centimeters high and 20–25 centimeters in diameter. The form of the pot depended on the cultural traditions of the village. For example, in Mediterranean-influenced cultures, such as the Cortaillod culture (elsewhere known as the Lagozza culture in Italy and Chassey culture), the bases of pots were rounded. In eastern-influenced cultures, like the Pfyn culture (3800–3500 b.c.), pot bases were flat. There were many variants, among them, tall ceramic forms and flat vessels, also used for food storage. Whole pots containing charred cereals have been found in some houses. Most of the harvested grains probably were stored in such vessels. The few other pot types include beakers, jugs, and miniature cups. From five to twenty ceramic vessels were used in each dwelling.

Until the period of the Corded Ware culture (2750–2400 b.c.) toward the end of the Neolithic, ceramics were more or less undecorated. There are, however, differences between vessels produced in the eastern part of the Corded Ware culture distribution area and the western part. Vessel forms varied. The impressed cord used to decorate these pots had a Z twist in the west and an S twist in the east. Many wooden vessels also were made, in particular, flat forms, beakers, and spoons, mostly of ash and elder.

Tools and Raw Materials. An assortment of implements was needed in each house. The most frequently encountered tools are those made from animal bones or red deer antler. Before bronze came into common use, bone and antler represented the "plastic" of the Neolithic period. Different types of awls were employed to work leather and to weave textiles or basketry. Other bone or antler points were used as arrowheads or to catch fish. Bone chisels could be used to manufacture objects from wood, bark, or even softened antler. One important bone tool, employed at these settlements between 3700 and 2700 b.c., was a special type of comb made of several halved and pointed ribs from cattle or red deer, used to separate linen fibers.

Axes or adzes were indispensable for all work at this time. The fact that all parts of lake dwelling houses were built with wood underscores the importance of these tools. Clearing arable land necessitated felling trees, which likewise required axes and adzes. Antler was the raw material used to make sleeves. The production of the wooden handles and stone blades was very time consuming and finding the appropriate raw materials was also not very easy. This made the handle and axe blade valuable. Easily manufactured antler sleeves acted as protection, absorbing part of the shock of the axe bows during use. Their use marks an important technical innovation in this period.

Antler, bone, and especially teeth also were important raw materials for making ornaments. Tusks from male wild boars were formed into pendants that reflected both the elegance and courage of the hunter. The canines and metapodial bones of dogs, wolves, and bears were perforated and used to make finery. So-called green stone was the raw material used in the production of groundstone blades as well as chisels. Flint was used to knap knifes, sickles, scrapers, or arrowheads. The distribution of all these artifacts, debris from their manufacture, and half-finished bits and pieces show that these tools were produced in every household. Only from 3100 b.c. is there evidence for specialized production of tools, such as like grondstone celt blades.

Special melting pots and copper objects, such as celts and jewelry, show that from 3900 b.c. copper was produced locally and used just in eastern Switzerland. Only from the later fourth millennium can copper be found anywhere in Switzerland. Ötzi, the famous Iceman, who lived in about 3200 b.c., carried an axe with a copper blade. Finds of linen, spindle whorls, and loom weights show that textiles were woven in these villages, and evidence points to specialized linen textile production from 3100 b.c.

Nutrition. When the climate was good the lake dwellers' diet was based on plants, mainly cereals, comprising 60–70 percent of all consumed calories. The remainder of the calorie intake came from mammal and fish meat as well as milk and milk products. The diet also varied depending on the season. Most vitamins were consumed between late spring and autumn. In the winter vitamins were provided by stored nuts and dried fruit. When the climate deteriorated, people became more reliant on hunted meat and fish as well as nuts and wild fruit. When the bad conditions were prolonged, the inhabitants of the lake dwellings may even have starved.

Analyses of the few available human skeletons, and especially human excrement, provide some clue to the health of these people. They certainly suffered from parasites, the eggs of which have been found in their excrement. Eggs of tapeworms show that raw fish was consumed. Between famine and illness, it is clear that the inhabitants of the lake dwelling settlements did not enjoy perfect health.

All Neolithic lake dwelling settlements contain rich assemblages of wild and domestic mammals or fish as well as remains of collected and cultivated plants. Why did these people need to hunt and gather in combination with subsistence food production? The proportions of wild and domestic animal bones and plant remains found at the settlements has varied through time, and these variations were not related to cultural changes but rather to climatic fluctuations. Long-term deterioration in the climate led to bad cereal harvests. Because cereals contain many more calories than meat, they were much more important in terms of nutrition. If a harvest was bad, fewer calories were produced. People therefore sometimes were forced to hunt and to collect more to complement their diets. The proportion of wild animal bones found at the sites increases parallel with poor climatic conditions.

Cereals and Other Plants. In the fourth millennium b.c. a naked wheat (macaroni wheat) and sixrow barley were the main cereals grown in the northern alpine foreland. Beginning around 3400 b.c. hulled emmer wheat became increasingly common, replacing naked wheat in the early third millennium b.c. There also were regional specialties in cereal growing. In some parts of western Switzerland, einkorn was eaten. The cereals were threshed inside the villages, as large amounts of chaff and pollen in the cultural layers testify. Cereals were consumed either as bread or as a component of "hotpot" meals. An entire loaf of carbonized bread from the fourth millennium b.c. was found in Twann. Cereal grains often are visible in carbonized crusts found on the inside of pottery sherds together with microscopic fragments of cereal bran.

Flax and opium poppy were cultivated widely. Whereas opium poppy appeared in quantity at the beginning of the lake dwelling period, flax became more important from around 3600 b.c. onward. Flaxseeds were consumed as food and the stem made into fibers for linen textiles. We do not know how the poppy flower itself was used. Only the seeds are found in large numbers, with the capsules absent. Perhaps the poppy was put to medicinal purposes, although the oil-rich seeds also could have been eaten. Legumes are astonishingly rare, with only peas found in small quantities.

Wild plant remains occur in very large amounts on these sites. The most important of these plants collected for the diet of the lake dwellers, especially in terms of calories, was the hazelnut. Acorns had some importance as well, and apples also were widespread. The gathered wild apples were cut in half with bone knifes and then dried. Stocks of such apple halves have been found in burnt layers. Other seasonally available fruits were collected, including blackberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, and sloes. Almost every plant brought into the settlements could be used for some purpose, whether for food, medicine, dye, or animal fodder.

Domestic and Wild Animals. As elsewhere in Neolithic Europe, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and dogs were kept. It is possible that the domestic horse was introduced during the period of the Corded Ware culture (around 2700 b.c.). Until about 3900 b.c., when the human population was still small and the forest cover dense, sheep, goats, and pigs were more economically significant than cattle. Afterward, until 3400 b.c., cattle became more important, although the population density of domestic animals still was not very high. Only from 3400 b.c. did pig numbers start to grow. More open landscape from about 2800 b.c. encouraged increases in the numbers of the domestic species, especially cattle. Chemical analyses of residues in pots show that from 3400 b.c. cow's milk was consumed. From this time forward, cattle also gained importance as draft animals. Sheep began to be exploited for their wool after 2700 b.c. With the appearance of wool textiles, buttons and needles made from bone or antler also became more common. Sheep grew larger and were slaughtered older if they came from wool-producing herds.

The most important game animal during all prehistoric periods in Switzerland was the red deer. It was exploited for meat, antlers, and its skin. During times of climate deterioration, up to 80 percent of the mammal bones found at lake dwelling sites may have come from red deer. During the thirty-seventh century b.c. the poor weather lasted for several decades. Intensive red deer hunting, in fact, may have wiped out the population in the region of Zurich for several years.

Roe deer, wild boar, fox, wolf, bear, and beaver were hunted regularly. Less common are bones from aurochs, European bison, moose, chamois, ibex, and smaller fur-bearing animals. Bird bones are still more rare, even in the sieved samples, perhaps because they were eaten where they were caught. Frog bones, however, frequently appear in sieved soil samples. It is not surprising, given the lakeside location of these settlements, that fish played an important role in the diet of these Neolithic villagers. The presence of their bones in soil samples and the finding of such artifacts as nets, hooks, and harpoons confirm their importance in the diet. Pike were caught by the shore, and other species were fished from dugout canoes in open water.

Travel and Trade. The dense forests of Neolithic Switzerland were an obstacle to travel. The easiest way to move through the landscape was over water. Villages could communicate and trade easily with each other in the lake areas, with people traveling in dugout canoes (examples of which have been found). There also were contacts over longer distances. Thus, raw materials such as flint from northern Italy or eastern and central France or rock nodules for stone celts from southeastern France were traded to distant places. Another example of these far-flung contacts is the decorated clay vessels from Arbon-Bleiche 3, which are best known from sites of the Baden culture in Hungary, Slovakia, and Bohemia.

Social Class and Religion. The absence of special buildings and the equal size of houses suggest that there was no social differentiation at this time. Grave goods would give some indication of social diversity, but graves are not very numerous compared with the number of villages. During the fifth and fourth millennia b.c. people mostly buried their dead in stone cists, each containing several skeletons placed on their sides in a contracted position. There are also cists with only one person, such as one in Lenzburg, where a single, very tall man about thirty-five years old was interred. He was buried together with many special grave goods, including beads, pendants made from dog canines, bone tools, and a bow with arrows. His burial may be an example of a chieftain's grave. Unique Neolithic burial structures, such as the grave stele in Sion, come from later in the third millennium b.c., but normally all sepultures were collective. On the whole, the impression is of societies where differentiation possibly existed along age and gender lines but was not hierarchical.

The few Swiss Neolithic graves found contain grave goods showing that people believed in life after death. The fact that only a few graves have been located, compared with the overall number of settlements, shows that many people were buried in ways that left no trace. Did these individuals have other beliefs about what happens after death? Did they practice a different religion?

Symbolic life also was displayed in pendants. Were pendants that were made from dog canines or metapodials an expression of a particular belief? It is clear that agricultural societies, which were affected so strongly by the vagaries of weather, believed strongly in some kind of religion. Perhaps opium also was consumed as a drug among these peoples.


At the end of the Neolithic in Switzerland, prehistory once again loses its sharp focus for archaeologists. Almost no sites between 2400 and 1800 b.c. have been preserved. While Early and Late Bronze Age lake dwellings exist, sites from the Middle Bronze Age (1500–1250 b.c.) are missing. After 800 b.c. information comes only from dry sites, where organic materials are poorly preserved and dating is less exact. The Swiss lake dwellings are unique in the way that they open a window on the world of small farming and hunting societies in this region. Although we may never know what these people called themselves, we now have a much clearer idea of how they interacted with and exploited their environment.

See alsoThe Iceman (vol. 2, part 4); Arbon-Bleiche 3 (vol. 2, part 4); Sion-Petit Chausseur (vol. 1, part 4).


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JÖrg Schibler, Stefanie Jacomet,
Alice Choyke