The Alpine Foreland

Model of Pfyn

Model of Pfyn

The Neolithic lake villages of the Alpine foreland are above all known for their organic preservation. This not only allows an unparalleled insight into prehistoric life, providing information on anything from wooden vessels and architectural evidence to plant macroremains and coprolites, but also, with the aid of dendrochronology, offers an incredibly tight dating framework. The establishment of villages, their growth, decline and abandonment, can be traced almost year by year.

All this has resulted in a wealth of published material for countless sites in Switzerland, south-west Germany and eastern France, and to a lesser extent in Italy, Austria and Slovenia. Yet our project asks what difference this tight chronological framework actually makes to interpretations of community life, of change and innovation in material culture, and of the perception of time by people in the past. We want to look at the diversity of material culture and architectural styles at various scales (single houses, groups of houses, a site, site clusters and regions). Using the available sequences, we can then think about where innovations first appeared, the speed with which they spread, and the kinds of materials which changed more or less quickly or in association with each other. By investigating how such change and variation is socially embedded, we can also re-think models of change more generally.

As an initial step, and given the wealth of material available, we have had to decide on a more restricted area and time period. The first lake villages of the Alpine zone are established soon after 4300 BC, and settlement continues, with many interruptions, well into the Bronze Age. We have decided to focus mainly on two transitions, from the Pfyn to the Horgen culture (beginning around 3400 BC) and from the Horgen culture to the Corded Ware (from around 2800 BC). In both cases, a style with a smaller geographical distribution is replaced by another one current over a wider area. But while the development of the Horgen culture is increasingly seen as a gradual process with links to local predecessors, the introduction of Corded Ware is rapid and often interpreted in terms of population replacement. This contrast will allow us to compare processes at different speeds, as well as attitudes to interpretation.

Alpine Federsee museum

Alpine Federsee museum

Geographically, we will concentrate on evidence from the area between Lake Neuchâtel and the Bodensee/Lake Constance, as this is a region straddling larger cultural blocks and sees its own series of creative adaptation of wider cultural trends. In addition, several sites in this area are extensively published, allowing one to link architectural sequences with developments in material culture at a high chronological resolution. We will compare our results to other sites and areas where appropriate.

Within The Times of their Lives this work is being led by Dani Hofmann and Alasdair Whittle. We have exchanged ideas with colleagues in Switzerland in a first visit in late April and early May 2013, during which we met researchers in Basel (Stephanie Jacomet, Renate Ebersbach, Jörg Schibler, Francesco Menotti and Thomas Doppler), Bern (Werner Stöckli and Albert Hafner) and Zürich (Niels Bleicher). We also discussed the chronology of Arbon Bleiche 3 and Pfyn-Breitenloo with Urs Leuzinger in Frauenfeld. We anticipate outcomes in the form of two papers, on community and change, in collaboration with these and other colleagues.

Further reading

Pétrequin, P. 2013. Lake-dwellings in the Alpine region. In F. Menotti and A. O’Sullivan (eds), The Oxford handbook of wetland archaeology, 253–7. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ebersbach, R. 2013. Houses, households and settlements: architecture and living spaces. In F. Menotti and A. O’Sullivan (eds), The Oxford handbook of wetland archaeology, 283–301. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hofmann, D. 2013. Living by the lake: domestic architecture in the Alpine foreland. In D. Hofmann and J. Smyth (eds), Tracking the Neolithic house in Europe: sedentism, architecture and practice, 197–227. New York: Springer.

Local Partners: Renate Ebersbach, Thomas Doppler, Stefanie Jacomet, Jörg Schibler (all IPNA) and Albert Hafner (Bern University)
UK Team: Dani Hofmann and Alasdair Whittle