| 1 August 2009
Prehistoric hut gives clues to ancient Alp life
Archaeologists in Switzerland have excavated the ruins of the oldest hut in the Alps, a prehistoric discovery that dates back nearly 3,000 years. The find in the Silvretta mountains near the Austrian border gives scientists the oldest architectural proof that early Iron Age shepherds spent summers living among the rich alpine grasses, tending to herds and using milk to make cheese, in a way much like farmers today.
Carbon dating shows the hut at 2,264 metres in canton Graubünden was being used as early as 800 BCE, when pile dwellings dotted Switzerland's lowland lakes and people were of pre-Celtic tribes. Not much remains of the hut today but Thomas Reitmaier, an archaeologist from Zurich University, and a team of archeology students have spent the past three years meticulously excavating its foundation, a dry-stacked stone structure that held wood walls and a roof. The hut could have held four to six people. "The oldest proof of an actual shelter up until now is medieval," Reitmaier said. "Now we have a site that goes much further back."
The discovery is just one of more than a dozen finds that Reitmaier and his team stumbled across during a project to find signs of ancient settlements in the Alps. "We know of sites, of actual structures, from this time period all around the Alps but nothing up in them," Reitmaier said. Archaeologists had already documented numerous prehistoric settlements in the Lower Engadine Valley, which is more fit for habitation than other nearby valleys. It would make sense that those ancient dwellers would have pushed into the high alpine regions in summer, Reitmaier said.
Starting in 2007, Reitmaier set out to canvass the landscape north of those early Iron Age settlements by following valleys into high pastures near modern-day Austria. Using binoculars, Reitmaier and his team looked for places in the high country where people might have wanted to live. "We saw something from very far away where the ground looked different than the rest of the area," he said. "So we went and dug a test trench. The results were surprising." The team quickly found charcoal and sent a sample back to the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich for testing, which revealed the hut had been in use nearly 3,000 years ago. Subsequent excavation work uncovered another layer of ash about ten centimetres down, suggesting that at some point the hut had burned. It is unclear whether that is the reason the occupants abandoned it.
This summer the team uncovered clay potsherds. They also discovered other archaeological sites, including a fire pit that may stem from the fifth millennium BCE. The archaeologists have left half of the site untouched for future scientists. "You can see with the weather why it would be important to have a hut up here," he said, as blinding snow pushed a herd of cows down the valley. "For sure there are older huts in the Alps. One day someone will find one from the Bronze Age. It's out there. There's no doubt," Reitmaier said.
Source: Swissinfo.ch (25 July 2009)
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