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Surfacing the Underwater Secrets of the Neolithic Lakes Villages

Reconstructed Open Air Museum/photo 2005 by Gerhard Schauber

Around 7,000 years ago, cultures of the region around what is now Switzerland, Germany, and Austria starting clearing areas for farming and permanent settlements. Many of these villages were made around bodies of water such as Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland, and Lake Constance bordering Germany and Austria. Lake villages were often constructed on shores, in elevated spaces called pile dwellings. Over the millennia, these sites have been overcome by rising sea levels, but in the last 150 years damming and underwater archaeology has revealed a wealth of information about life in the Neolithic time period. The underwater conditions preserved the stilts of the villages, boats, and the tools of daily life.

At OccPaleo we are testing experimental replicas to gain deeper insights into ancient technologies and lifeways through replication and testing of some of the most interesting artifacts. We've recently recreated two of the stone tools found at Lake Constance which provide clues about the daily lives and craftsmanship during the Neolithic era.

Over 5,000 years ago, before the age of bronze, the inhabitants of Lake Constance started making lake edge elevated pile villages, and used stone axes (top/original artifact, bottom/our functional replica) to cut wood for dwellings and tools. The unique antler sleeve is believed to lessen shock on stone axe bit, and prevent splitting of handle. Our replica was made of beech wood, elk antler and a dark green basalt axe bit. Hafting was carried out in the manner of the original, with the pithy inside of the antler connecting the handle on one side and the stone in the other. Our testing showed not only that it worked well with shock absorbing antler, but what kind of chores it was best suited for.

Testing showed that this Lake Constance axe would have been well suited for the smaller chores, such as cutting shelter poles, bow staves, and wood saplings under 3 inches that could be used for various tools.

We chose another stone tool artifact to replicate from the Lake Constance culture, as it is so reminiscent of today's pocket knives. This is a replica of a hafted flint knife from the site of Wangen-Hinterhorn, Horgan Culture from Neolithic era who lived in the same area approximately 5000 years ago.

This style of knife is called a fist knife and would have been used in the palm of the hand. (Original in top photo) A small flint flake around 3 to 4 inches long, would be sharpened on the outer edge, and fit into a wooden handle with Birch tar. The small drilled hole suggests a cord would have been attached, so that it could be hung from belt or off the ground in shelter. Our replica, in bottom photo, performed very well.

A round of tests using this knife showed the haft style functions best for sawing motions such as cutting plant fiber and small wood shoots, to create basketry, traps, friction fire parts, and arrows.

The reconstructions here not only taught us a few lessons about the Neolithic period in Europe, but also gave some insights into the human experience in general. People all over the world were started to experiment with farming in addition to hunting and gathering, and this lead to new kinds of settlements and survival gear, and new tools to make them.

Our replica of a flint bladed sickle from the beginning of the European Neolithic (Karanova, Bulgaria/7 to 8,000 years ago), used to harvest grain when cultures started clearing land and experimenting with agriculture.

Shown here is a model of a larger axe, made in the style of an underwater artifact from Lake Neufchâtel in Switzerland. This style might have been used to cut larger trees, to clear land and create the stilt piles of the Neolithic shore villages.

Here in North America, cultures were undergoing similar changes, and it was a big lesson to learn how people were using similar tools, in a differant continent, and separated by an expansive ocean. Some of the tool nuances were special to individual cultures around the world, but many ideas were universal, as we were all experiencing an increase in our population and the way we would choose to live on this planet.

North American style axe, for similar purposes of clearing larger trees and working with bigger wood projects, such as village dwellings and boats. (Replica and original artifact)

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