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An artist's impression of life at a Lucerne area stilt village.

Swiss Archaeologists Find Bronze Age City in Lucerne Lake

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Archaeologists fishing for artifacts beneath the muddy floor of Lake Lucerne in central Switzerland discovered something enthralling. Approximately 13 feet (four meters) below the opaque surface of Lake Lucerne, they found the remains of  a long-lost sunken village , which had apparently been there for millennia. 

This amazing find confirmed the theory that the Lucerne lake basin had been inhabited in the distant past, with much of the previously occupied area now hidden from view beneath the lake’s expansive waters. Just as importantly, this discovery helped establish a timeline for when past settlements were constructed—and that timeline will now include a notable revision, as explained in a newsletter recently issued by the Canton (District) of Lucerne.

“These new finds from the Lucerne lake basin confirm that people settled here as early as 3000 years ago - with this evidence, the city of Lucerne suddenly becomes around 2000 years older than has been previously proven,”  district authorities announced

The newly discovered village has been radiocarbon dated to the Late Bronze Age, or approximately the year 1,000 BC. Previously, the oldest evidence of human activity at the site occupied by the modern city of Lucerne were a few archaeological remains that were traced back to the 10 th century, and a written document from eighth-century church authorities revealing that a monastery (St. Leodegar) had been open there at that time. 

It was strongly suspected that the site had been occupied much earlier, but proof of this hypothesis had proven elusive—until now.

A scuba-diving archaeologist brings a part of the stilt house village found beneath Lake Lucerne to the boat. (Canton Lucerne)

A scuba-diving archaeologist brings a part of the stilt house village found beneath Lake Lucerne to the boat. ( Canton Lucerne )

Lake Lucerne: Submerged Prehistoric Culture Resurrected

The Lake Lucerne excavations continued from December 2019 to February 2021, and were sponsored by Cantonal Archaeology Lucerne, the organization responsible for historical preservation activities in the area. The underwater excavations were necessitated by a lake water pipeline construction project, which has involved significant dredging and construction activity that could have obliterated the remnants of the  underwater village  if nothing had been done to prevent that contingency.

By following the footsteps of the dredgers in real time, the local archaeologists turned this potentially destructive activity into an opportunity. The dredging actually removed a top layer of mud that had been laid too thickly to allow for meaningful excavations in the past, which allowed the archaeologists to make their remarkable discovery.

Searching for any indications of past human activity, the scuba-diving scientists discovered a plethora of thick wooden pylons or stakes, of the type that would have supported prehistoric pile-dwelling wooden houses. Also known as  stilt houses , these sturdy residential structures were built with wooden planks and covered with thatch roofs. They were elevated on wooden platforms supported by thickly-cut  pylons, guaranteeing that waterside dwellers would remain safe from even the most prodigious springtime flooding.

Stilt houses  are still used by coastal peoples in Southeast Asia and on the islands of Oceania, and in a few other places where people have chosen to build as close to lakes or rivers as possible. In the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, pile-dwelling structures were frequently constructed by people who lived in the  Alpine region  of Central Europe, who chose to build their settlements adjacent to crystal-clear mountain lakes.

Two of the stilt logs found at the bottom of Lake Lucerne by scuba-diving archaeologists. (Canton Lucerne)

Two of the stilt logs found at the bottom of Lake Lucerne by scuba-diving archaeologists. ( Canton Lucerne )

Living this way allowed  Neolithic and Bronze Age settlers to take full advantage of the abundance that nature provided. They could drink, bathe in, and fish in the clean lake water, raise cattle and cultivate crops in the fertile surrounding lands, and hunt the many animal species that lived around the lake and depended on it as a source of drinking water.

The people who lived in these lakeside villages built or manufactured tools, hunting and fishing implements, farm equipment, clothing, ceramic pottery, and household items of all types from metal, wood, and  plant fibers , demonstrating admirable creativity in addition to their industriousness. 

It isn’t known exactly when the Lake Lucerne stilt house village was abandoned. What is known is that over the course of several centuries, an accumulation of rubble and debris from severe storms clogged sections of the Reuss River and thereby inhibited Lake Lucerne’s drainage capacities. This caused the lake’s level to rise steadily through the 15 thcentury, and a 19th-century city development project increased the lake’s level even further. 

Consequently, Lake Lucerne is now five meters deeper than it used to be. Since the sunken stilt house village was found at a depth of four meters, it seems the process of its submergence likely began long ago. It is possible that the stilt houses were deserted within decades or even years after they were first constructed, if in fact they represented the last round of building activity that occurred in the area.

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If future excavations are performed, perhaps they will uncover evidence that shows the Lake Lucerne basin was occupied more recently than 1,000 BC. Then again, if there are additional discoveries they might prove to be much more ancient, allowing archaeologists to confirm that people lived in the region long before the newly established date.

A Lake Constance, Germany stilt house village which would have been very similar to the nearby Lake Lucerne village. (Rufus46 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Lake Constance, Germany stilt house village which would have been very similar to the nearby Lake Lucerne village. (Rufus46 /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Preservation of a Unique Heritage

The discovery of the submerged Bronze Age stilt house village at Lake Lucerne is exciting, but hardly unique.

In years past archaeologists had already found 111 pile-dwelling settlements near lakes, rivers, and wetlands in the Alps region, including 56 in Switzerland, which were constructed and occupied between 5,000 and 500 BC. Many of these sites have produced prolific bounties of well-preserved artifacts that have revealed many details about how people lived and survived during ancient times.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) refers to these settlements collectively as “one of the most important sources for the study of early agrarian societies in the [Alps] region.” In 2011, they granted  World Heritage Site status  to all 111 of these prehistoric settlements, and that designation will undoubtedly be given to the Lake Lucerne site sometime in the immediate future.

Top image: An artist's impression of life at a Lucerne area stilt village.    Source: Joe Rohrer /  Canton Lucerne

By Nathan Falde

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