Used to work in rescue archaeology in Switzerland, e.g. for the Archaeological Services of the Canton of Berne and ProsPect GmbH, now a full-time PhD student at the University of Zürich, Switzerland. My research concerns the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture based societies in Central Europe and I study the production and use of chipped stone artefacts through microscopic use wear analysis.

Reminiscing about archaeology and the Tour de France

You know what? My day of archaeology will be archaeology, but it will also be a very normal summer’s day. I am a Dutch archaeologist. I don’t live or work in the Netherlands, I’m in Switzerland, but there are certain things that I still enjoy doing the Dutch way. Let me explain. My day will consist of writing a few longer emails to colleagues who have asked for information. I will also be gathering and checking my use wear lab equipment for next week. Have I still have enough forms, are the photos and sketches that I need ready, where are my – plastic! – callipers? (Don’t ever let me see you use metal callipers on chipped stone artefacts!) Such things. Oh, and I promised my wife to get some ice-cream: There are ripe raspberries in the garden.

Nothing terribly exciting, but that’s okay because the Tour de France is in its final week and cycling is an important sport in Belgium and the Netherlands. The Dutch public radio has been doing a 4 hour life commentary of each stage since 1970. There is French music and interviews, returning features about France and the history of le Tour and life commentary from the finish-line and the motorcycle.

For many Dutch is it the sound of summer. Of course, on the radio you do not get to see the stunning pictures of the beautiful French landscapes and the castles and the quiet little villages, brought to life for one day by the passing of the Tour. But with good commentators you still see the pain on the riders faces in your minds eyes, you can hear the crowds and the whole circus driving through France and you can feel the excitement of yet another chasse patate. And there is much more space for the imagination, the romance and the heroics that may be killed by reality of television.

So, you are wondering, what does that have to do with archaeology? Well, for me the Tour de France and the radio commentary are strongly related to archaeology. The Tour takes place in July, the most summery of summer months. I was a field archaeologist for over a decade before I started this use wear PhD on Mesolithic chipped stone tools and archaeological fieldwork is strongly connected to the seasons in so many ways. The riders in the Tour are also experiencing something that reminds me of some of the harder summer excavations I took part in. And especially it reminds me of those research field projects abroad, where a group of – often young – people, who often never met before and come from various countries themselves, are thrown together to face a strange foreign culture, a harsh climate(why, oh why does anyone go digging in the Jordanian Death Sea valley in July?), physically hard work that also mentally takes its toll and where a special bond of intimacy and comradery is forced.

Erinnerung an Assuan -  Paul Klee. 1930. Albertina, Wien. Via Europeana.

Erinnerung an Assuan – Paul Klee. 1930. Albertina, Wien. Via Europeana.

But for me, the Tour de France and Radio Tour de France will now always remind me of a special archaeological project just over a decade ago. My then soon-to-be-wife and I supervised excavations in the city of Assuan, Egypt and lived on the beautiful island of Elephantine. After an early start and a long morning’s work in the field together with the fabulous workmen from Kuft and before doing some more documentation in the late afternoon and evening, we would have a lie down during the hot afternoon hours. I would then often listen to Radio Tour on my world receiver, lying under the mosquito net while the Nile and river-life slowly went by outside the window of our cool room on the island. So later today, I can get on with the more mundane tasks of an archaeological PhD and listen to Radio Tour de France and reminisce a bit about the past.

An uneventful day of archaeology seems to lie ahead of me, but sometimes that’s perfectly alright. And besides, in archaeology you never know what may come still!

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!