SWISS PAGES (3)
THE LEGEND OF THE LAKE DWELLERS – REDISCOVERING SWISS ROOTS
Have you ever heard the legend of the lake
This word combination may be very common for
readers from Asia, Africa or Latin America since to
this day who, are living in dwellings in lakes and
riverbanks. I do not talk about these. I talk about
lake dwellers in Switzerland. Do you know that 5000
years ago the ancestors of many Europeans and
notably of the Swiss were called, lake dwellers
(in French “les lacustres”).
EVELINA RIOUKHINA, UNECE
A sensational discovery took place slightly more than 150 years ago on the shores of the Lake of Zürich. Low water levels in the winter of 1854 prompted the commune of Meilen to begin construction of a harbour on the shore of Lake Zürich. Embedded in the mud were a number of odd-looking artefacts and a series of wooden poles, evidence of a lakeside village. Following the discovery similar settlements were found on other Swiss lakes and in subsequent decades hundreds of lake villages were uncovered, especially in the European Alpine Arc from France to Slovenia, all in excellent conservation. This was the first find of such a quality when water preserved the materials in perfect condition provided they were not exposed to the air. The Meilen deposits were buried under layers of mud and sand. Until Meilen, prehistory had yielded only graves, weapons and military sites. Archaeologists found objects made of metal, stone, terracotta or glass. The Meilen discovery is still considered as a watershed for European archaeology since the lakedweller finds included various organic materials, such as wooden objects, hazel nuts, dried apples, spices or carved resins, first ever concrete evidence that could help to understand the life and habits of these people.
According to one of the theories, put forward in the 19th century by Zürich scholar Ferdinand Keller, lake dwellers built their villages on platforms above the water and connected them by means of bridges and walkways. The legend of the lake dwellers, even those of the pre-historic lake civilization, enflamed the imagination of the society of the time. The painter August Bachelin was officially commissioned by the Confederation to paint his famous “Village lacustre de l’âge du Bronze” (Lake dwellers village of the bronze Age) to represent Switzerland at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867. The same year Bachelin also painted the “Village lacustre de l’âge de la pierre” (Lake dwellers village of the stone Age, Swiss National Museum of Zürich/Schweizerisches Landesmuseum) as in those days it was believed to correspond to reality. Today both pictures represent masterpieces of Swiss national historical art.
Modern scientific analysis and dating have shown that the settlements were slightly different from what had been supposed earlier. Specialists now prefer to talk about ‘lake people’, who actually built on land (in marshy areas). At that time, between 4,300 BCE and 800 BCE, the water level in the lakes was much lower and varied from year to year. There were no platforms, only individual houses standing apart from one another. And the hundreds of poles that had led to the platform theory were, in fact, from other periods. The question as to why the lake peoples chose to live in muddy environments remains to be answered.
It is interesting to note that a village, near the Lake of Neuchâtel – the Village-Lacustre de Gletterens has been totally reconstructed recently to show the houses of the lakedwellers which makes it possible to visualise their way of life. In addition, special workshops are organised where one can see the ancient technologies and participate in the demonstration on how the tools of prehistoric time were made, or even more – to participate in the preparation and tasting of Neolithic dishes. As a very interesting archaeological site “in action” the village is a powerful instrument in demonstrating the origins of our culture, history, and generally of the relations of mankind with its environment. It has a large pedagogical impact on the younger generation. It is a vital part of our historical heritage, worth preserving if only for the light it sheds by implication on the impermanence of our own civilization, more than ever threatened by climatological change.
The discovery of Meilen gave a new historic vision of Switzerland. It gave also new insight into the life of distant ancestors in other European countries. History no longer began with the Romans – there were skilled, intelligent peoples before the Roman occupation.
Scientists gradually collected the evidence that helped in the study of the complex processes that in the course of several millennia led to the formation of rural society in central Europe. Archaeologists found that metallurgy was developed and had existed for several millennia already, passing from copper to steel through bronze. The sum of knowledge that we received from the prehistoric lake-dwellers of the Neolithic era and bronze Age is of exceptional and outstanding value.
Archaeological sites cannot provide higher precision in dating, superior conservation of the materials or facilities for research in the natural sciences. Traces of archaeolo-botanics and archaeolo-zoology are located under the waters in large quantity and in excellent condition. The lake sites in a manner of speaking provide important archives at the disposal of the different branches of the natural sciences, such as biology, climatology or sedimentology, that allow us to advance our knowledge on the relations between human beings and nature through the millennia. Dendrochronology (the system of dating which uses the annual growth rings in trees) makes it possible to date almost to the nearest year the remains of the wood. It provides a clear picture of the successive epoches and a precise time frame for central Europe.
Today more than 450 sites of the lakedwellers
(“les lacustres”) have been indexed
in Switzerland, almost half of them are in the
region of the Three Lakes (Lake of Neuchâtel,
Lake of Bienne and Lake of Morat). At the
same time, Swiss archaeologists are warning
that development of the lakeshore, and especially
pollution, are destroying in a few
decades a heritage that stretches back thousands
of years. Countless objects still remain
hidden under the lake shore. Concerned with
this situation, Switzerland put forward a proposal
to include the lake dweller sites in the
Tentative List of UNESCO world heritage sites,
by way of a cultural and historical heritage. A
submission called “Les vestiges d’habitats
préhistoriques dans les lacs et les marais: “les
lacustres” (“Traces of pre-historic settlement
in the lakes and marshes: “the lake-dwellers”) was prepared by the Section Patrimoine Culturel
et Monument Historiques of the Office
Fédéral de la Culture (OFC)Four sites were
presented: the Lake of Constanz, the Lake of
Zürich, the Three Lakes (Lake of Neuchâtel,
Lake Bienne and Lake Morat) and the Lake Léman.
The selection criteria for considering of
these sites are the following:
“to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design” ;
“to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared” ;
“to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history” ;
“to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or seause which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change”.
Near 600 sites are registered within the arc of the European Alps, located besides Switzerland in France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria and the south of Germany (lakes in the Bavarian pre-Alps). Placed under the responsibility of Switzerland, who are the pioneers in the research on the lake dwellers, the project could pass from national to transnational importance.
(With special thanks to: Dr. Samuel van Willigen and Ms. Angelica Condrau from the Swiss National Museum of Zürich/Schweizerisches Landesmuseum and to Mr. Daniel Dall’Agnolo from the Direction of the Gletterens Village for providing me with the precious photos for this publication in UNSpecial. Background documentation used: Marc-Antoine Kaeser: “Des fantasmes d’une Suisse insulaire: le mythe de la «civilisation lacustre»”, also “Les Lacustres. Archéologie et mythe national”, UNESCO documentation, the extracts from the file submitted by Switzerland to the UNESCO Tentative List, numeous other documentation and sources).