First settlers in Switzerland
Some of the most interesting archaeological finds in Switzerland are those of the lakeside settlements with their houses built on piles. The oldest date from the 4th millennium BC, and shed light on life before the time of the Helvetians, Rhaetians and Romans.
Lakeside settlementsThe first such structures were discovered in the winter of 1853/54 at Lake Zurich, which at the time had an unusually low water level. This set off a successful search in many lakeside and wetland locations in the Alpine foothills. This "pile dwelling fever" even spilled over into Italy, northern Germany, Sweden and Scotland, where archaeological sites were found in open and silted-up waters. Before long, the similarities in the finds and their chronological order clearly pointed to an area of pile dwellings located around the Alps.
The discovery of these shore and marsh settlements marked a significant moment in archaeological research. What made them even more of a sensation was the fact that prior to their discovery very little was known about the history of Switzerland before the time of the Helvetians and Romans. Now there appeared – sealed off from the atmospheric oxygen by the water and remarkably well preserved – a range of household items, woodworking, forestry and agricultural tools, weapons, hunting and fishing equipment, jewelry and clothing; finished products, semi-finished products and processing wastes from everyday village life that had been lost, discarded or burnt in a fire disaster. These cultural deposits yielded entire layers of cultivated and foraged plants and the bones of domestic and wild animals, giving an insight into the eating habits and economy of the inhabitants.
The settlers built their houses on stilts along the lakesides in order not to waste valuable agricultural land. However, the residents had to be flexible – at high water they were often forced to leave their homes temporarily or even forever. Despite these risks, people were living in such pile dwellings for around 3,000 years.
The best-known lakeside settlement was the Celtic village in La Tène on Lake Neuchâtel. The culture of the late Iron Age, which began around 450 BC, was named after this location. Other important excavations were made at Lakes Neuchâtel and Biel in western Switzerland, at Lakes Zug and Zurich in central Switzerland and at Lake Constance in eastern Switzerland.
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