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Colorful sunset at Lake Dwellings of the Stone and Bronze Age at Pfahlbaumuseum in Unteruhldingen on Lake Constance, Baden-Wurttemberg.

Pfahlbaumuseum, Germany: 5000 Years of Incredible History Preserved on Alpine Lakes

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Prehistoric ‘pile dwellings’ were discovered only 150 years ago, and Europe’s past, before the advent of the written word, is well-preserved in numerous lakes and wetlands throughout the foothills of the Alps. One such site has been recreated for modern eyes at Pfahlbaumuseum in Germany.

As demonstrated at Pfahlbaumuseum, these sites of the alpine region have provided specialists with a unique opportunity to reconstruct what life was like in early societies and to connect the missing link between the hunter-gatherers of pre-history and the first European civilizations.

Pfahlbaumuseum, Germany. (Public Domain)

Pfahlbaumuseum, Germany. ( Public Domain )

There are 111 sites in all, fifty-six of them in Switzerland with the rest in Germany, France, Austria, Italy and Slovenia, lying deep in lakes or buried on lake shores. They were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in June 2011. Nowhere else in the world is the development of settlement communities so clearly preserved. Due to their location in waterlogged soil, constructional timbers, food remains, wooden tools, and even items of clothing have survived.

Farming, Hunting and Fishing Changed Over Thousands of Years

The origins of farming date back approximately 12,000 years, beginning in the Middle East in the ‘Fertile Crescent.’ Their techniques and knowledge eventually arrived in Central Europe.

Layout of Pfahlbaumuseum. (Schmidtt, H.U / CC BY 4.0)

Layout of Pfahlbaumuseum. (Schmidtt, H.U / CC BY 4.0 )

Animal bones found amongst the settlement layers showed that small herds of cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats provided meat as well as useable raw materials for the settlers. The herds only met a limited requirement, with milk and cheese consumed in small amounts. In time, people were able to hunt wild animals thanks to the advent of bows and arrows. They also gathered berries, nuts, and wild fruits, collected birds’ eggs and honey - a delicacy. Naturally, they fished too.

Pile Dwellings at Pfahlbaumuseum and Other Sites were Adapted to Suit the Location

Around 5000 BC, people were already constructing simple houses along the shorelines of the northern Italian Alpine lakes. And from 4300 BC, the pile dwelling settlements spread around the Alps.

Desirable locations were reused and the remains of new settlements often sat on top of old, providing valuable information about their development over time. Tree-ring analyses of the preserved constructional timbers allowed precise dating of individual houses or entire villages.

The settlers varied the height of the floors depending on the changing water levels of the lakes. In bogs and on the shores of smaller lakes, the floors were laid directly on the ground or slightly elevated, whereas at the large lakes in the foothills of the Alps, pile dwellings had raised floors.

Reconstruction of stairs to a pile dwelling. (Gebhardt, C / CC BY 4.0 )

The layout of villages varied, in that some houses were arranged in rows, planned and built simultaneously, while others were set in a cluster, evolving spontaneously. Interior organization depended on tradition and regional preferences. Initially, the houses were used for less than 20 years before being rebuilt. It was not until the Late Bronze Age, as construction methods advanced, that some survived for almost 100 years.

Pile-Dwellers Traded over Vast Distances

Many dugout canoes, the earliest means of transport used by the pile dwellers, have been found in the lakes. Also found are the earliest preserved wheels in Europe, approximately 5200 years old and used on two-wheeled carts drawn by oxen. From approximately 3400 BC onwards, these carts transported building materials and agricultural produce.

Thousands of piles found near the embankment show that at least six walkways crossed the shallows separating Lake Zurich from the Obersee, linking lakeshores located almost a kilometer (0.62 miles) apart since 2000 BC. In the open landscape, transporting goods on carts was possible, and when lake levels were low, foot bridges, rather than canoes, were used.

Pfahlbaumuseum, Germany. (Marc Kunze /Adobe Stock)

Pfahlbaumuseum, Germany. ( Marc Kunze /Adobe Stock)

Flint and Other Traded Goods

Flint was a valuable commodity used to make arrowheads, drills, knives, and even daggers. Besides local flint, high-quality flint from distant regions was imported. Jewelry made from seashells or amber, as well as pottery imports, demonstrates that people traded hundreds of miles across Europe 6000 years ago.

Even perishable objects such as wickerwork and woven plant fibers survived in the conditions of the wetland settlements. Bowls and cups were usually made from maple. More complex items made from strips of bark were sewn together with bast. 

Pile-dweller’s pottery displayed at Pfahlbaumuseum. (CC BY 3.0)

Pile-dweller’s pottery displayed at Pfahlbaumuseum. ( CC BY 3.0 )

Well-preserved textile finds are some of the great treasures of pile-dwelling research. In rare cases, woolen fabrics have survived, along with hats, shoes, belts, and fragments of cloaks.

Thought to be pendants, several objects such as perforated teeth and bones have been discovered in lakeside settlements. Beads made of limestone, amber, or glass were either attached to clothing or worn as necklaces.

The first items of copper jewelry appeared as early as 4000 BC. In the Bronze Age, the variety of jewelry increased significantly: besides pendants and brooches, bracelets were worn; by then, bronze casters used different techniques to manufacture countless shapes.

Shards on display at Pfahlbaumuseum. (Ledl, T / CC BY 4.0)

Shards on display at Pfahlbaumuseum. (Ledl, T / CC BY 4.0 )

From 2000 BC, metalworkers  went on to make bronze tools, weapons, and jewelry in a variety of forms. Initially, copper ores found close to the earth’s surface were processed.

The Pfahlbaumuseum Allows Visitors to Travel Back in Time on Lake Constance

Numerous finds from these settlements are displayed in museums and convey knowledge about life 5000 years ago. In open-air museums such as Pfahlbaumuseum in Germany, visitors can walk into reconstructed Late Stone Age houses, examine their furnishings, and see the everyday items used at the time – making it easier to travel back to a long-distant past.

Top image: Colorful sunset at Lake Dwellings of the Stone and Bronze Age at Pfahlbaumuseum in Unteruhldingen on Lake Constance, Baden-Wurttemberg. Source: murmakova /Adobe Stock

By Michelle Freson

References

Exarc.net. 2001. Pfahlbaumuseum Unteruhldingen (DE). Exarc.net. Available at: https://exarc.net/members/venues/pfahlbaumuseum-unteruhldingen-de

Internationale Bodensee Tourismus GmbH. 2018. A sunken world heritage site made visible. Lake Constance Bodensee. Available at: https://www.bodensee.eu/en/what-to-experience/map-of-lake-constance/lake-dwelling-museum-unteruhldingen_poi160

UNESCO. 2018. Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps. UNESCO. Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1363

Mombelli, A. 2011. Lake dwellings reveal hidden past. Swiss Info. Available at:  http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/lake-dwellings-reveal-hidden-past/30542748

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