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Prehistoric pile dwellings around the Alps

Pile dwelling sites around the Alps. (in new window)

Pile dwelling sites around the Alps. © palafittes.org

Our prehistoric ancestors have left behind a vast, fascinating and invaluable record of their lives. Now submerged on the floors of lakes and river beds, these objects which include the oldest textiles in Europe, mussels, gold, amber, earthenware pots, dugouts and wooden wheels have been rendered invisible by the water and silt. Yet, it is also these conditions which have allowed these artefacts to survive virtually intact. In 2011, UNESCO added 111 prehistoric pile dwelling sites spread over six countries around the Alps to its World Heritage List.

Facts and figures

  • What? This serial property of 111 small individual sites encompasses the remains of prehistoric pile-dwelling (or stilt house) settlements in and around the Alps, which were built between 5000 to 500 B.C. on the edges of lakes, rivers and wetlands. Fifty-six of these sites are located in Switzerland.
  • Where? Switzerland (15 cantons), Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Slovenia.
  • UNESCO inscription: 2011
  • Why? They bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared, and are an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use 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 (Criteria III and V of UNESCO Operational Guidelines).
Reconstruction of the lakeside settlement Cortaillod-East on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel. (in new window)

Reconstruction of the lakeside settlement Cortaillod-East on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel. © Laténium

Underwater archaeologists at work in Erlenbach-Winkel in the canton of Zurich. (in new window)

Underwater archaeologists at work in Erlenbach-Winkel in the canton of Zurich. © Amt für Städtebau / Unterwasserarchäologie ZH

Background

The wooden pile dwellings are a mine of detailed and precise information on the lives of Europe’s early agricultural communities and on the development of ancient farming techniques. Dendochronology, a method that dates wood with incredible precision, has made it possible to retrace, over very long periods, the history of entire lakeside villages and the movements of their populations.  These submerged structures provide first-rate archaeological evidence of prehistoric settlements. Built between 5000 and 500 B.C., these sites would have been inhabited by up to 30 different cultural groups from the Neolithic period, the Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. In some places, the layers of deposits are some several metres deep and contain artefacts from as many as 25 villages. The layout of lakeside villages varied widely. Some comprised one or several rows of houses, others were no more than a single street, and a few were simply a cluster of dwellings, constructed either on stilts or at ground level. Regardless of the shape they took, each prehistoric settlement has its own unique story to tell, as evidenced by the contrasting locations where they have been found. These range from the shallow waters of lakeshores (e.g. Lake Biel) to hinterlands where the waters have receded (e.g.  Lake Zug), right up to modern-day urban centres (e.g. Zurich).

World Heritage and Swissness

These prehistoric settlements offer a fascinating insight into the life and times of early agrarian societies around the Alps.  The excellent state of the finds makes it easier to understand how the sites were used as well as the purpose they served. Long before they became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, pile dwellings in Switzerland were the subject of detailed research by the cantons. The everyday objects uncovered at the sites paint a vivid picture of how ancient farming communities once lived and worked in Switzerland. More information on farming in modern-day Switzerland can be found on our website.

Palafittes iApp

Palafittes iApp

Virtual tour

The iPhone App "Palafittes Guide" takes you on a virtual tour of 50 sites and the rich treasures that lie beneath. The app is continually updated.

Let’s go!

These prehistoric pile dwellings can be found right across Switzerland.
This one is the Sutz-Lattrigen site on Lake Biel in the canton of Bern.

Localization of the site on a map

Coordinates:
47.10051, 7.2153

There are good public transport links to all the Swiss sites.