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1 March 2004
Lake-dwellers revisited

In 2004 around 20 Swiss museums will hold exhibitions dedicated to the first discovery of lake-dwelling peoples on the shore of Lake Zurich – a discovery that gave Europeans new insights into the lives of their distant ancestors. Timed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the discovery, the exhibits will dispel some of the myths that have accumulated around prehistoric lake villages. At the same time, Swiss archaeologists are warning that development of the lakeshore, and especially pollution, are destroying in a few decades a heritage that stretches back thousands of years. Countless objects still remain hidden under the lake shore.
     Low water levels in the winter of 1854 prompted the commune of Meilen to begin construction of a harbour on the shore of Lake Zurich. Embedded in the mud were a number of odd-looking artefacts and a series of wooden poles, evidence of a lakeside village. Following the discovery similar settlements were found on other Swiss lakes and in subsequent decades hundreds of lake villages were discovered, especially in the European Alpine Arc from France to Slovenia. The Meilen finds fired Europeans’ imagination and led to press articles, exhibitions, paintings, novels, public events, calendars and schoolbooks.
     This interest was in great part due to the quality of the finds, exemplified by the Meilen exhibition at the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. Water preserves materials perfectly provided they are not exposed to air, and the Meilen deposits were buried under layers of mud and sand. Until Meilen, prehistory had yielded almost nothing except graves, weapons and military sites. The lake villages provided the first evidence that enabled scholars to understand how our ancestors lived. “Even today the Meilen discovery is still considered a watershed for European archaeology,” explains Marc-Antoine Kaeser, curator of the National Museum exhibit. “Generally, archaeologists of prehistory are left with objects made of metal, stone, terracotta or glass, but the lake-dweller finds include various organic materials. There are wooden objects, and even hazel nuts, dried apples, spices or carved resins that help us understand the life and dietary habits of these peoples.”
     The lake-dweller finds fed a new historic vision for Switzerland and other European countries. History no longer began with the Romans – there were skilled, intelligent peoples before the Roman occupation. However, the earliest historical constructs were somewhat wide of the mark, generating a legacy that persisted for many years.
     Ferdinand Keller, a 19th century Zurich scholar, put forward a theory that the villages were built on platforms above the water and connected by bridges and walkways. Modern scientific analysis and dating have revealed that the settlements were not quite so exotic. Specialists now prefer to talk about ‘lake peoples’, who actually built on land (albeit in marshy areas). At that time, between 4300 BCE and 800 BCE, the water level in the lakes was much lower and varied from year to year. There were no platforms, only individual houses standing apart from one another. And the hundreds of poles that had led to the platform theory were, in fact, from different periods. The question as to why the lake peoples chose to live in muddy, damp environments remains to be answered.
     According to Kaeser, the Swiss celebration is intended to revive interest in the lake-dwellers and show that “archaeological reality is just as fascinating as the fictitious worlds that for decades were constructed around the lake peoples.”

Source: swissinfo (1 March 2004)

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