Myths — the Swiss Lake Dwellers

17 February 2008
Myths — the Swiss Lake Dwellers

When I was at school we were taught that early civilizations in Switzerland had built villages on raised wooden platforms standing in shallow water on the lake shores. When I came to live in Switzerland I learned that this was untrue. What a pity! Where did this rather attractive and romantic idea come from and why did it turn out to be false?

The winter of 1853/1854 was exceptionally dry and the level of some Swiss lakes fell well below any previously recorded level. At the village of Obermeilen on the Lake of Zurich it was decided to build an embankment to enclose the new land uncovered on the lake floor. The workers responsible for digging the dyke were surprised to discover in the mud a large number of wooden piles arranged in orderly rows, as well as an extraordinary quantity of objects made of stone and flint, reindeer horn, as well as pottery. These discoveries eventually reached the hands of Ferdinand Keller, chairman of the Swiss society of antiquarians (as archaeologists were known at that time).

Keller wrote a couple of newspaper articles stating that the remains were, indeed, pre-historic. As a result, he began to receive reports from other colleagues describing similar discoveries all over Switzerland. He visited Obermeilen and in the autumn of 1854 described dozens of similar sites that had been located in eight Swiss lakes. Large floor areas made of split logs were found intact, the cracks between the logs still packed with clay. Keller stated that, in his opinion, this meant that whole villages had once been built on wooden platforms standing above shallow water on the edges of lakes. He also said that this was evidence for the origins of a lake-dwelling society that had once existed all over the Alpine region—Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland. Although other archaeologists were doing research in this area, Keller was accepted as the first person to grasp the full significance and to give meaning to what had been discovered.

Keller was a serious man and he asked himself why people would want to build houses on piles in shallow water. The best answer that he came up with was that it was a good way to catch fish and was also a defence against attack by humans and wild animals. Furthermore, in a land still covered with dense forest, communication by water was evidently the quickest and safest form of transport. He also wanted to know how it had been possible for early man to drive piles into the beds of the lakes. But in the 1830s explorers had found fishing villages in New Guinea built on piles in shallow water and Keller pointed out that these natives had no sophisticated technology to do this.

Keller’s view, which was considered the only possible one until the 1920s, became so popular that he and the archaeological community lost control of the concept. The idea of a lake-dwelling society fired the imaginations of politicians, artists and the general public. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing in the middle of the nineteenth century and popular illustrations showed a paradise lost where lake-dwellers lived through a Golden Age of innocence and plenty. The lake-dwellers, it was believed by some, confirmed the origins of a unique Swiss national identity of hard-working and pious warrior-peasants. More radical politicians said that here was proof of the uninterrupted progress of Swiss society from primitive beginnings to a modern civilization. In fact, there was something for everybody.

The flaw in Keller’s argument, which would only come to light much later, was that he believed that all of these communities had existed as a single society at one time and developed in a continuous way until the present day. By the 1920s archaeologists had begun to piece together the puzzle of the lake-dwellers. In the meantime, several new techniques had become available: the study of plants and domestic animals, seed grains and pollen—but, above all, tree-ring dating. It was already known that there had been three important epochs in the rise of mankind over the 5,000 years before Christ: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Painstaking digging and research revealed that the lake villages were rarely occupied in a continuous manner during these three ages. Some villages had prospered and then had been abandoned, often for very long periods of time, only to be occupied again much later by people of a quite different culture. What appeared to be neighbouring communities had, in fact, not existed at the same time. Tree-ring dating showed clearly that villages occupying the same piece of ground had been built by different cultures at different times, separated by gaps of hundreds of years.

What would explain these gaps? War? Famine? Disease? Climatologists came to the rescue by pointing out that the gaps corresponded to periods of greater rainfall. Thus, the germ of an idea was sown—throughout history the levels of the Swiss lakes fluctuated up and down frequently by several metres.

In the 1950s a German archaeologist excavating a lake-dwellers’ village found that the hearths of the fires had actually been built on what was, in fact, the “lake bed”, where there was also evidence of plant growth. Another observation was that objects that had been dropped and might have been expected to float away in the water were, in fact, found exactly where they had been dropped. Thus, it was clear that the village had been built at a time when the lakebed had become dry land.

Thanks to Keller’s description, the general public had imagined a wonderful, if erroneous, idea of the lakeside society. We now know that these villages were built by different peoples in different places at different times, and were designed to confront different situations of terrain and climate. The houses were built on dry land during a period when the level of water in the lake was significantly higher or lower than it is now. They were sometimes provided with a level wooden floor that kept the inhabitants away from the damp earth and provided some protection against seasonal floods. The idea that whole villages were built on wooden platforms standing on piles in the lake was purely wishful thinking.