Switzerland

The archaeology of early tourism in the Swiss Alps

Or how a short survey of archaeological remains in the Grindelwald area (Berner Oberland) shows that not only modern but also 18th and 19th century tourism left traces in the land-scape. In my job at the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne I don’t get to do much field-work these days. I do however get the occasional treat to check out sites that volunteers report to us. On this day of archaeology, I am writing up the results of such a day out. To-gether with our local man, I drove and walked around Alpine pastures and steep forests above Grindelwald. Peter grew up in Grindelwald, knew everyone we met and has a wealth of knowledge about local history.

The Unterer Grindelwald glacier in an early 19th century book (Gabriel Lory 1822, Voyage pittoresque de l'Oberland Bernois). The highest grassy knoll to the left of the glacier is the Bäregg where the guesthose would stand some 30 years later, the site of the kiln would be in the steep wooded slopes further down.

The Unterer Grindelwald glacier in an early 19th century book (Gabriel Lory 1822, Voyage pittoresque de l’Oberland Bernois). The highest grassy knoll to the left of the glacier is the Bäregg where the guesthose would stand some 30 years later, the site of the kiln would be in the steep wooded slopes further down.

We recorded several building remains (dry stone masonry) and structures to do with early modern or medieval agriculture/transhumance, but a lime kiln in rather strange location led me to find out more about the history of early tourism in Grindelwald. Thanks to its location at the foot of the Eiger and two large glaciers reaching the valley floor, Grindelwald has been destination for foreign travelers from the late 18th century onwards. Although agriculture still plays a role, economically the village relies almost solely on tourism.

One of the first paths constructed in Switzerland for touristic rather than transport purposes was built in 1821 from Grindelwald to the Stieregg, a spot roughly 600 m above the valley floor and from which one could admire the so-called ice sea («Eismeer») of the Unterer Grindelwald glacier. From 1823 there was a refuge at the end of the path and 1858 a guest-house was built at the nearby Bäregg. The guesthouse was twice destroyed by avalanches and rebuilt (1868, 1906), but after another avalanche in 1940 its ruined walls were left un-touched. A replacement was erected at Stieregg in 1952, this time lasting until 2005 when it had to be pulled down because the glacial moraine it stood on became unstable. Due to the substantial retreat and decreased thickness of the glacier since the 19th century the moraine has been sliding on the glacier.

19th century lime kiln above Grindelwald (Flielenwald). Foto: Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne.

19th century lime kiln above Grindelwald (Flielenwald). Foto: Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne.

But back to our small kiln. It lies in an extremely steep bit of forest to the north of the Unterer Grindelwald glacier gorge and a good 400 m above the valley floor. This was puzzling, be-cause chalk and wood occur abundantly on the valley floor to allow lime production near the permanent settlement. Also, huts and houses on the higher summer pastures were until very recently timber structures resting on dry stone plinths. Having a look at the ruins of the Bäregg guesthouse we hit upon the solution. Its walls were mortared and our kiln site does lie near the path to the Bäregg. According to late 19th century maps the kiln would have been just below the tree line, suggesting it was probably used to produce lime for building work on the Bäregg guesthouse far above where trees grow. Whether the lime was destined for the new guesthouse of 1858 or a rebuilding phase we cannot say for the time being.

Ruins of the Bäregg guesthouse above Grindelwald, built in 1858. Photo: Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne.

Ruins of the Bäregg guesthouse above Grindelwald, built in 1858. Photo: Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne.

Today, the glaciers have retreated far above the valley floor, changing the landscape of Grindelwald substantially, but still tourists keep coming to this picturesque spot in the Swiss Alps. Like them, I too enjoyed my detour from my usual field of activity in prehistory into the history of 19th and early 20th century tourism.

The Bäregg guesthouse in 1900 with the Unterer Grindelwaldglacier in the background.

The Bäregg guesthouse in 1900 with the Unterer Grindelwaldglacier in the background.


The long lives of lithic artefacts and a day of archaeological data entry

Lithic artefacts lead long lives. Radiolarians live and die in an ocean after which their skeletons sink to the ocean floor. Over many thousands of years they subsequently form bands of hard rock. 145 million years later small pieces break from a rock face in the Swiss Prealps and are transported to the Swiss Plateau by glaciers and rivers. Here, ca. 6500 years ago, somebody picked up a piece and shaped it into tools: knives, projectile points and scrapers, for example. During the period, the Late Mesolithic, many tools were made of various kinds of stone. Flint, for example, and fine grained quartzites and radiolarites. These tools had many uses, e.g. the scrapers might have been used to work animal hides or wood.

Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. Photo: M. Cornelissen.

Late Mesolithic scrapers from Arconciel/La Souche, Switzerland. Photo: M. Cornelissen.

That is what my day of archaeology was all about: what happened to that piece of radiolarite between when it was picked up from the Sarine riverbed near Fribourg, Switzerland to when an archaeologist found it in the Arconciel/La Souche rock shelter. I am a PhD student at the University of Zürich and together with my colleague Laure Bassin, I study the production and use of lithic artefacts during the Late Mesolithic, the time when the last hunter-fisher-gatherers lived in what is now Switzerland. Laure Bassin studies the lithic technology and chaîn opératoire, the way they were made or the first part of the lives of these artefacts. I study microscopic use wear traces on the artefact’s surfaces in order to understand how these tools were used. We combine our research and can so come to understand the complete biography of these tools and what happened at the site of Arconciel/La Souche during the 6th and 7th Millennium BC when all these changes of the transition to farming took place.
Much of my research is done behind a microscope. However, an almost larger part is – like with much archaeological fieldwork – spend documenting my observations. Data bases, text and photos and drawings are all vital parts of most archaeological work. This day of archaeology I spend mostly giving in data into an image data base. During my research I produce a large number of images, artefact photos, photos of the experiments I have done and especially microscopic photos. Using such a database allows me to document what each photo illustrates and also to find these photos again.
Data entry might not be the most exciting part of my work, but it is essential and will probably save me a lot of time and stress later on. It is fascinating to think a piece of rock, consisting of tiny animals that lived 145 million years ago and was worked and used over 8000 years ago by people like you and me now lies on my desk. And that – together with my colleague – I can understand so much about that piece of stone’s history, the tools it became and the people who made and used these tools so so so so many years ago. It makes my day of archaeological data entry much more fascinating than it might seem.

A Day in Swiss Rescue Archaeology

There was a big contrast between this day’s morning and afternoon.  A large project, renewing all pipes and drains and the street, as well as implementing a district heating system is underway in the medieval town of Unterseen, Switzerland.  A small team from the Archaeological Service of the Canton of Berne is investigating the archaeology as it is being exposed by the building work.  Mechanical diggers and all sorts of building machines serve around us as hole after hole are opened and closed at an unrelenting pace.  We do a combination of a watching brief and a more traditional excavation. It is a complex construction site, one of the most challenging I have worked on.  There are many partners (firms and authorities) on site; there is little space in the old town centre for all these people and their material.  Besides, the many shops and restaurant lining the street suffer greatly from the extended work during the main tourist season.

It is thus essential that the archaeology delays the building work as little as possible.  To be able to allow some traffic we only truly excavate one of the 16 small fields (7x9m) at once.  For the remaining area we react to the construction work.  That means we document the archaeology as the builders open new sections of trenches, after which the building continues and the archaeology gets destroyed.  We thus strictly limit ourselves to excavating and recording only that which is threatened to be destroyed.  It a stressful project and only possible at all – as is so often the case – through good and intense communication between the local authorities, the various building partners and the Archaeological Service.  The scientific results are fantastic though, considering the way we work.

©Archaeological Service Canton Berne. June 2012.– Niche in a medieval wall in Unterseen, Switzerland.

© Archaeological Service Canton Berne. June 2012.– Niche in a medieval wall in Unterseen, Switzerland.

We have been able to confirm the old suspicion that during medieval times, the town was not yet characterised by the `Stadthaus´ and the surrounding open spaces as it is today.  Instead we now know that, at least along the eastern side of the town, a narrow alley lined by densely packed rows of houses allowed traffic to pass through the town from gate to gate.  Of these houses, we only find the cellars.  The stone-built cellar walls are often plastered.  Some even twice, showing not only the care with which they were constructed, but also their extended use and the way they were cared for.  Stairs leading down into them and wall-niches for lamps and candles further help to bring the medieval occupation of Unterseen to life.

These new finds, however, also raise new questions.  The building work does not reach the depth of the cellar floors and it is here most finds are to be expected.  As a result it remains unknown for now what these cellars, and the houses above them, were used for.  Without finds it is also difficult to date them precisely.  However, from historical sources we know much of the small market town was destroyed by fire in 1470AD. After that it was decided not to rebuild the central part of the town, but leave open spaces surrounding a large trading house, the precursor of the current `Stadthaus’.  And indeed we see many signs of fire on the remaining cellar walls and the rubble that fills them. So it is likely the cellars date between the city’s founding in 1279AD and 1470AD.

In the afternoon I was able to meet up with a colleague to talk about the start of a next project.  Summer 2010 I was involved in another rescue archaeology project in Andermatt and Hospental just below the Gotthardpass in Switzerland.  On the site of a future golf-course, at ca. 1500masl (which must be almost finished now), we discovered a number of archaeological features, dating from the Late Mesolithic (ca.6000BC) to Early Modern Times.  The Canton of Uri, who is responsible, has now provided funds for a small post-excavation project.  We were able to excavate part of the Late Mesolithic site, Hospental-Moos, before its destruction and this now forms the heart of the project.

Mesolithic sites are relatively seldom in Switzerland and in the Alps.  But archaeologists are becoming more and more aware of the prehistoric occupation and use of the Alps.  Slowly we see more research and even rescue archaeology in the Alps.  Until 2010 no Late Mesolithic sites were known at this altitude in central Switzerland, which makes this site rather special.  The fact that practically all artefacts are made of rock crystal makes it even more special.  I am very thrilled to be able to analyse these finds.

In a quiet office, we discussed which of the many samples we had taken on site are to be analysed further. Especially at sites of this nature, it is not just the finds and the features that allow us to paint an accurate picture of the past: Soil samples can help us explain the built-up of the soil.  Charred plant remains such as seeds, e.g. from hearths, might tell us about what people ate. And like pollen-samples from the soil they can also teach us about the vegetation around the site at the time of occupation.  Charcoal samples, often also from hearths, can be used to date the site’s habitation.

So my day started on a hectic construction site, where I try to unravel the development of a 13-15th Century market town.  It finished in a quiet office, discussing the last hunter-gatherer societies of the Alps and their environment ca. 7000 years earlier.  A challenging and varied Swiss Day of Archaeology!