13 October 2008
An Alpine Pompeii from the Stone Age
What happened to the prehistoric village on Lake Mondsee in the Austrian Alps? One geologist has found evidence that a vast rock slide may have set off a tsunami that buried the lakeside settlement. He's hoping to find funding - and mummies.
Alexander Binsteiner, a geologist and flint stone expert, believes that an accident affected prehistoric lake dwellers living on the eastern tip of Mondsee Lake, near present-day Salzburg. Twenty to 50 wooden huts, coated with mud or cow dung, stood there on stilts along the lakefront. The women wore dresses made of flax, decorated with shells and snails, and the men wore bast fiber ponchos and sandals. Similar lakeside settlements were common in the fourth millennium BCE. These collections of slightly elevated huts on moist ground were scattered around the Alps, from Lake Paladru in France, across the lakes of Switzerland and Austria to Slovenia and Lake Garda in present-day Italy.
The ancient population reached Mondsee Lake around 3600 BCE. They probably came from the Balkans, as the circular designs on their pottery suggest. They felled oaks and willows with stone hatchets, using the lumber to make the first thresholds for their new houses along the swampy lakeshore. They had metallurgical skills, which were rare in Europe. They cleverly searched the mountains for copper deposits, melted the crude ore in clay ovens and made refined, shimmering red weapons out of the metal. In dugout canoes not unlike those of the American Indians, they paddled along the region's river networks and sold their goods in areas of present-day Switzerland and to their relatives on Lake Constance. Even Ítzi the Iceman had an axe, made of so-called Mondsee copper.
At approximately 3200 BCE, says Binsteiner, the master blacksmiths were struck by a 'devastating natural disaster.' A cliff 150 meters (492-foot) tall and five kilometers (3.1 miles) long broke off on the southern shore of Mondsee Lake and plunged into the water. The geological traces of the disaster were discovered by accident, and only recently. After weeks spent examining the fracture zone, the geologist submitted a report of his findings. He estimates that the fractured cliff consisted of '50 million cubic meters' of rock, and that an ensuing tsunami at least five meters (16 feet) tall rushed against the opposite shore, inundating the settlement there.
Helmut Schlichtherle, Germany's leading expert on lakeside settlements, says that Binsteiner's theory of an Alpine tsunami is 'very exciting.' Erwin Ruprechtsberger, an archeologist in the Austrian city of Linz who specializes in the region, calls the cliff collapse idea "a completely new approach that could solve many of the mysteries of the Mondsee culture." "We know that the settlements here were abruptly abandoned at around 3200 B.C.," says Binsteiner. "There were no people in the region for almost 1,000 years." Now the mayor of a nearby Alpine town wants funding for an archeological dig from the state government.
Archeologists lack clear answers to even the most basic questions. Why, for example, did the lakeside dwellers settle on peninsulas, islands and the flat zones along the shores of these lakes? Even getting to the settlements, across swampy plank roadways, must have been a trying experience. And then there were the challenges of living with plagues of mosquitoes, damp clothes and constantly sinking houses. The huts lasted about 15 years before the wood decayed. Some scientists attribute this preference for moist environments to the residents' need for protection. It was a violent time around 3000 BCE, and people erected increasingly thick walls to protect themselves. Or were the lakeshores chosen for transportation reasons? "The rivers were the highways of the Stone Age," says Swiss archeologist Urs Leuzinger. In their boats, the settlers paddled down the Danube all the way to the Black Sea. They brought back decorative shells from the Adriatic and, traveling along the Rhine and Elbe Rivers, amber from the north.
Binsteiner does have evidence to support his theory of an apocalypse brought on by a landslide. In 1872, the lake dwelling was discovered in shallow water and crudely dug up with long excavator shovels. More than 10,000 artifacts were uncovered. They are among the finest relics of the Neolithic Age. The site was already remarkable for the weapons discovered there, including 595 stone hatchets, cudgels and studded battleaxes, 451 arrowheads along with a dozen hatchets and six daggers made of copper. In the Neolithic Age, these metal tools were such sought-after status symbols that they were even beyond the reach of many a tribal leader. If it was so valuable, why was this costly arsenal left lying in the mud? "If the site had been abandoned peacefully, such treasures would never have been left behind," says Linz archeologist Ruprechtsberger. Given the many clues, archeologists are anxious to come up with explanations soon. "We need a new, large excavation project at the site of the disaster," says Binsteiner. "Perhaps we will even find mummies there."
Source: Spiegel Online (10 October 2008)