Figure 4: Swiss Neolithic cultural phases

While Swiss pile dwellings are often grouped together, temporal and cultural variations exist. Occupation periods and cultures can be differentiated based on location and the artifacts they left behind. In excavating different sites, one of the key ways to distinguish between various cultural groups and settlement periods is through changes in pottery types over time. By using this and other diagnostic markers, it is possible to analyze and discuss the different periods and occupations associated with the different dwelling cultures.


Settlement Periods

It was initially assumed that there was only one “Pfahlbaukultur” (pile dwelling or lake dwelling culture) which ranged over a fairly wide area. As archaeological methods and understanding progressed, this single, large culture complex was broken down into four key phases: the Cortaillod, the Pfyn, the Horgen, and the Schnurkeramik (Figure 4). Each was particular to a different region of Switzerland, and while there was some overlap between one culture and the next, each represents a particular time period, region, and culture.

Figure 5: Lake Neuchâtel, Lake Morat, and Lake Biel.

The pile dwellers began to live on and near the Swiss lakes around 4400 BC, during what is now known as the Cortaillod phase, which lasted until approximately 3700 BC, and can be further divided into the Egolzwil, Early Cortaillod West and Early Cortaillod Central groups. These settlements were centered around Lake Neuchâtel, Lake Morat, and Lake Biel (Figure 5). Tools found in Cortaillod contexts include loom weights and clay spindle whorls, although their presence is fairly rare. Pendants, bracelets, barbed harpoon heads, bodkins and gaffs, ladles, axe and azde hafts, hoes, and even fishing hooks were fashioned from bone and antler during this period. Wood was used to make ards (foot plows), furrowing sticks, and threshing sticks. Stone was a common material used to make end scrapers, leaf-shaped points, axe heads, and projectile points. In some ways, these lithics show continuity with earlier Mesolithic cultures. Another carry-over tradition from the Mesolithic is the continued importance of hunting/gathering even after agriculture is introduced. 

Figure 6: Lake Zürich, Lake Pfäffikon and Lake Greiffen

Overall, the Pfyn culture (3700-3300 BC) shares many similarities with the Cortaillod culture; some experts consider it a late contemporary of the Cortaillod period. At least 33 Swiss sites centered around Lake Zürich, Lake Pfäffikon, and Lake Greiffen (Figure 6) are identified as belonging to the Pfyn culture, which has produced more cultural material than any other lake dwelling occupation phase. Approximately 80% of animal remains found during this phase at most sites were from domestic animals, including cattle, pig, sheep/goat, and dog, which would have been supplemented by wild animals, fish, and plants. Wheat was the dominant domesticated cereal type, with emmer and einkorn playing a key role. Barley, millet, poppy, flax, legumes, peas, and lentils were also used, and hazelnuts, apples, plums, elderberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries were available. While this represents a general but not explicit shift towards domestic plants and animals and a cattle-based economy, the percentages of wild versus domestic flora and fauna continued to vary from year to year and region to region.

Throughout the Swiss Neolithic, human remains and burials are fairly rare. Two rare examples—found in 1864 and 1874—probably date from the Pfyn phase, and were possibly buried together due to their close proximity (20 feet/6 m). The Pfyn lithic assemblage contains axes made of nephrite or greenstone, projectile points, hammers, small flake tools, spindle whorls, and loom weights. These sites also include a large number of textiles, which often deteriorate quickly in archaeological contexts. Axe handles, agricultural tools, and bows and arrows were crafted from specific types of wood, but perhaps most surprising is the evidence of early metal working in Pfyn culture sites. Ceramic crucible fragments (Schmelztiegel), a byproduct of metalworking, indicate that some items may have also been made of soft, easily-worked metals, such as native copper. These crucibles were probably used to produce copper beads, axes, and other items.

The Horgen culture (3300-2700 BC) constitutes the longest phase of the Swiss Neolithic. The lithic assemblage from Horgen sites is similar to that of the earlier Pfyn and Cortaillod. While organic remains from Horgen sites tend to be rarer, possibly due to poor excavation methods in the late 19th and early 20th century, evidence for weaving becomes more common. Textile finds, spindle whorls, loom weights, combs, and flax seed are more numerous during this period. Evidence of metal working appears throughout Switzerland during this time, suggesting that copper may have begun replacing bone and antler as the material for personal ornaments during this period.

With an approximate date range of 2700 BC to 2400 BC, the Schnurkeramik (Corded Ware) culture is the last of the four Swiss Neolithic cultural phases. Named for the distinctive decorations on their ceramic wares, Schnurkeramik settlements are found across central and Eastern Europe in addition to the Swiss lowlands. The lithic assemblages found at these sites are similar to the previous occupation periods, with the addition of distinctive ground stone battle axes. Spindle whorls and loom weights are found, although these sites lack the weaving combs of in earlier occupation periods. Wooden wheels are an important Schnurkeramik innovation, and copper appears in even greater quantities than in the earlier Horgen and Pfyn settlements. Metal items include pins, buttons, pendants, beads, axes, and dagger blades. Schnurkeramik sites also occasionally include small grave mounds.

Other Local Cultures

The Linearbandkeramik (Linear Band Pottery) culture is linked with the shift from the Mesolithic to Neolithic period outside the lake dwelling culture area, and together with the Egolzwil culure, may have constributed to the pile dwelling agricultural complex. Groups similar to the Swiss lake dwellers lived in what is now France, northern Italy, and southwest Germany. These groups include the Rössen culture in Southwest Germany, the Michelsberg culture in southern Germany and northern Switzerland, in addition to the French Chasséen and Italian Lagozza cultures, which originated in the Mediterranean area.

Ceramics as Diagnostic Artifacts

Diagnostic artifacts are items which are characteristic of a certain culture, time period or geographic location, and appear in other archeological contexts in much smaller quantities. By recording the specific styles of artifacts found at so-called "type sites," archaeologists can analyze these items in context with those found at other sites to identify patterns in the archaeological record. Such patterns can help establish cultural variations between groups and aid in producing a chronology of the area. In order to establish different occupation periods, it is important that archaeologists identify differences between settlements, to determine which sites fit into a specific cultural phase. By demonstrating that a certain artifact dates to a specific cultural group and time, other excavators who find similar items can place newly excavated sites in a larger cultural context.

Although there are many similarities between the Cortaillod, Pfyn, Horgen and Schnurkeramik phases, each represents a different culture, location and time period. Since the ceramic vessels used during these periods exhibit distinctive characteristics, they make ideal diagnostic artifacts. While many cultural traits become increasingly complex over time, the ceramics of the Swiss Neolithic vary, and even decrease in complexity during later occupation periods. Strap handles, impressed designs, and other ceramic features may be found in several periods, but the specific styles and designs delimit the time a particular vessel was in use.

Many factors affect the appearance and unique characteristics of a ceramic vessel, including the clay type, how it was formed, shape, decorative elements, firing method, and even the individual preferences and abilities of its creator. While every piece is unique, there are several features which are consistent. Ceramics from the same period usually exhibit similar clay types, formation method, shapes, decorative elements, and firing methods. Swiss Neolithic pottery is fairly basic, although that too can vary depending on the culture. Ceramics throughout this period were hand-formed (as opposed to wheel-thrown) by coiling long, thin rolls of clay on top of one another and smoothing them together. They were then fired using either open flame or earth pits at temperatures between 750-1200˚F (400-650˚C).

Cortaillod ceramics come in a variety of thin-walled, flat-based shapes, and are consistently well-fired. While ornamentation is limited, they occasionally exhibit continuous horizontal designs or raised ridges and knobs under the rim or around the edge. As the Swiss Neolithic shifted into the Pfyn phase, ceramics maintained the flat-bottomed shape, but were generally larger than their earlier Cortaillod counterparts. Forms included an assortment of bowls, beakers, cups, pitchers, cooking and storage vessels. Additional elements included occasional handles, and the limited decoration consisted of oblique patterns with parallel rows of dots and small knobs with occasional fingertip impressions in the clay (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Neolithic sherd from Robenhausen (MPM 10186).

The Horgen ceramic style represents a step back in complexity from the earlier Cortaillod and Pfyn cultures, characterized by crude, thick walls, flat, heavy bases, poor firing methods and little ornamentation. Horgen vessels exhibit a fairly similar range of shapes, but with exhibit less variation than earlier periods. Schnurkeramik ceramics represent yet another shift in Neolithic pottery styles. While Horgen pottery was purely functional, Schnurkeramik ceramics were more carefully crafted, with more decorative elements. These decorations were created by pressing twisted chords in horizontal lines around the upper half of the piece, and a stick was sometimes used to augment these decorations. Schnurkeramik culture is named for this decoration method (“Corded-Ware Culture”), and features a greater variety of pottery shapes and forms than the previous occupation periods.

Housing and Settlements

The 19th and early 20th century interpretations of the Swiss Neolithic presented the settlements as groups of stilt homes on platforms above the lake in open water. This assumption was based on ethnographic evidence from contemporary studies of Polynesian groups. By taking unrelated ethnographic examples and applying them to the Swiss lake dwellers, the initial representations of their settlements were often romanticized (Figure 8). 

Figure 8: A.O. Tiemann painting of a romanticized lake dwelling (MPM Collections)

Known as the “Pfahlbauproblem” (pile dwelling problem), archaeologists attempted to analyze where Swiss lake dwellers homes were built. By the 1920s, this initial theory was heavily criticized and revised. In response to the earlier belief that the lake dwellers lived in open water, new theories claimed the lake dwellers lived on stilt homes in shallow water, while other theorists suggested that the lake dwellers lived exclusively on shore. Current interpretations present Swiss Neolithic buildings in a variety of locations, including along the shore, in shallow and deep water, along islands and shallow areas in the lake, and on land. 

Figure 9: A15012 - Piece of daub
from a house wall, hardened by fire.
Note impressions left by wooden
frame on upper left (under
original label) and lower left
(under MPM number)

There were two types of house; the Steltzbauten, which were elevated on wooden piles, and the Ständerhaüser, which were not elevated and would have sat fairly close to the ground. These homes were almost always built in wetland areas, and some theories suggested that the lake shore provided a better defensive position. Earlier periods show a fairly consistent house structure, which slowly developed into the rectangular buildings common during the Swiss Neolithic. These structures were approximately 13-28 feet (4-8 meters) long, with eight to 30 structures per settlement. Houses during the Swiss Neolithic were usually made using the wattle-and-daub method. They were constructed by sinking large tree trunks into the mud. The softer ground surrounding the lakes made it easier to drive the piles into the ground, and the piles served to keep structures off the wet ground. Once the piles had been sunk into the ground, smaller branches were woven between them, and mud mixed with chaff daub was applied to create insulated walls. Roofs were usually thatched or shingled with wood, which meant that these homes were highly flammable. When houses did burn, the fire baked the mud in the walls into solid chunks, similar to a piece of pottery. These fired chunks of wall provide evidence for house construction, including small impressions from the woven branches which provided the structure for the walls (Figure 9). Since charred material is more likely to be preserved, much of the organic material from these sites consists of the remains of such house fires. The pile dwellers had to move frequently, as homes eventually became infested with insects and other pests. They often moved just up the way, and shifted their settlement back and forth as necessary. Later occupations began to add fences and palisades to their settlements as well.

Why Live on the Lakes

In addition to drinking and cooking, water was used in hide processing, textile production, and tool manufacture. The lake’s supply of fish provided food, and in some cases the lakebed provided farmland or pasturage during periods of low water levels. While the area surrounding the lakes was always damp, this would also have made it easier to build homes in the pre-cleared areas and drive piles into the already-softened ground. Some studies suggest that the lakes also provided a measure of defensive protection for the settlements. While the lakes were a seemingly ideal place to live during the Swiss Neolithic, pile dwellings declined beginning around 1000 BC as lake levels rose. The higher water levels made living near the lake impractical, but also helped preserve what the lake dwellers left behind.

Subsistence Patterns

Even after the introduction of agriculture, Swiss lake dwellers were not exclusively farming, but shifted between this new subsistence pattern and earlier hunter/gather methods. While major shifts correspond to occupation periods, smaller shifts happened from year to year, season to season, and settlement to settlement. This fluid approach to subsistence methods meant that settlements practiced hunting, herding, gathering, and farming in varying proportions.

Animals were an important source of food during this time. Some animals were hunted using bows, others were trapped. Red deer, wild pigs and aurochs were staple food sources, and also provided raw materials for tools. Roe deer, elk, bison, wild horse, fox, badger, beaver, and hedgehogs were also food or fur sources. A variety of birds were also consumed, and fishing provided an additional source of protein. Oak trunk dugout canoes were produced using a combination of axes, adzes, and slow-burning fire; nets, spears, and weirs were used to catch fish. Mud trivets in the bottom of the boat allowed fires to be lit to attract fish at night; these were hunted using harpoons or tridents.

Animal products collected by hunting, trapping, and fishing were supplemented by herding and cattle dairying. Domestic animals, including cattle, sheep, pigs, and dogs only lived in the settlements in the winter, although some were kept in pens during the summer. Cattle, which were used as dairy animals, work animals, and for transportation, were an important part of the pile dweller diet and an increase in cleared grazing land resulted in an increase in herds. 

Just as the lake dwellers went back and forth between hunting and herding, so, too, did they switch back and forth between farming and gathering. Weed analysis shows shifts over time from the use of small patches of woodland to larger, open areas as farmland. There is also evidence of crop rotation, allowing areas to lie fallow as grazing lands for animals before replanting. This diet was supplemented by the locally available wild plants, including a variety of berries, acorns, goosefoot and lambquarters, turnips, sloe, and rosehips.  Different types of food required different processing methods. Apples were cut in half and left in attics to as a winter store (Figure 10), while other foods were cooked in ceramic pots, the remains of which occasionally appear in rediscovered cooking vessels. There is also evidence for a rudimentary form of bread.

Figure 10: One of numerous charred apple halves from Robenhausen


Tool Creation

Figure 11: A10195, stone blade with antler haft.

Figure 12: A10116 and A10115, examples of bark net floats

Tools during this period were made of a variety of materials, including bone, stone, and wood. Axes and adzes are a common find at Swiss Neolithic sites. The key difference between them is the angle of the blade; axe blades are parallel to the handle while adze blades are set perpendicular to the handle. Thus, axes would have been used for cutting things down, while adzes were better for digging or hollowing things out. These tools consist of a stone blade, an antler haft which served as a shock-absorber, and a wooden handle. The antler haft would have prevented the wooden handle from splitting while the axe was being used, and in many situations, the stone blade and antler haft are still found together (Figure 11). Other artifacts included boats, net floats and harpoons for fishing (Figure 12), stone-bladed antler-handled chisels, a variety of perforators, and even cart wheels in later periods.

The lake dwellers were fairly selective when it came to choosing materials for their tools. Specific types of wood were used to make boats, bows, and buildings because of their unique qualities. Current research suggests that both men and women would have engaged in tool making, particularly for tools relevant to their work. Ground stone tools were particularly popular throughout this period, although there are also examples of retouched and flaked stone tools. In some cases, worn-down ground stone tools were re-sharpened or retouched using flaking methods, which would have sharpened dull items and allowed the lake dwellers to continue using them.

In addition to examining the types of tools created by the Swiss Neolithic lake dwellers, it is also possible to examine how various tools were used. When an item is repeatedly used for the same purpose, the process of using the tool can alter it, wear it down, or otherwise change its physical appearance. These wear patterns can tell modern excavators and researchers a lot about what a tool was used for and how it was used. This includes unconventional uses for a standard tool—using the back of a hatchet as a hammer, for example. Use wear analysis can help indicate what an ambiguous tool was used for.

Spinning, Weaving and Textiles

When the Swiss lake sites were excavated in the mid-to-late 19th and early 20th century, the excavators were impressed by the quality of the textiles they found. Due to their organic nature, textiles are fragile in archaeological contexts and are rare in the archaeological record in many climates. Due to the good preservation of the Swiss lake sites, large quantities of textiles were found at the 19th century sites, including Robenhausen. In some cases, whole garments were recovered

Spinning and weaving are specialized processes, and as such require a specific set of tools. Linen, flax, nettle, bast (the inner bark of trees), and other plants were gathered and used in this process. Despite the presence of sheep at these sites, wool would not come into use until the late Neolithic; during most of the lake dwelling period, textiles were mainly linen, hemp, or bast. After gathering the raw material, the lake dwellers processed and cleaned it using bone combs (German “Hechel”). While this cleaned the material, it also aligned the strands in preparation for spinning. When raw material is twisted, it locks together to create a stronger and longer strand of material. Drop spindles were used to twist fibers into cords, string, and twine more quickly than simply twisting by hand. A drop spindle consists of a shaft, usually around 7-8 inches, which serves as an axel for a small (2-4 inch diameter), flat disk. While the shaft was usually made out of wood, both stone and clay whorls were used. A spinner would hang the drop spindle from the cord of already-spun material, while twisting the drop spindle like a top. The added spin in the cord pulls new fibers in, lengthening the piece of string. This process is repeated, creating a useable length of string. The spindle would slowly drop as more and more fibers were twisted into the strand. Understanding this process can provide information on leisure time, available plants, and even whether the spinner was right- or left-handed! The resulting string, cord, yarn, or twine could be used as-is, or woven into cloth and nets (Figure 14). The cloth could, in turn, be used to create clothing using a warp-weighted loom, and a shuttle. While the looms themselves are largely organic, loom weights were usually ceramic or stone, both of which have been found. Lake dwellers probably wore clothing similar to that of Ötzi the Iceman, who was discovered in the Alps in 1991, and appears to have lived in a village not unlike Robenhausen at the end of the Neolithic.

Figure 14:A10153 Swiss Neolithic
woven cloth remnant.