Next to a rock crystal vein, located at the edge of the retreating Brunnifirn glacier, near the Untere Stremlücke pass, Canton Uri (2831 m a.s.l.), a crystal hunter (“Strahler”) found two pieces of antler and fragments of wood in 2013. These are currently the oldest organic finds preserved in ice in the Alps. He also discovered a large quantity of rock crystal shards.
Hunter-gatherers repeatedly visited the quartz vein between 8000/7000 and 5800 BC and extracted rock crystal there to make tools. They left behind tools made on rock crystal, as well as production waste and the two pieces of antler. This rock crystal extraction site is the first known in the Gotthard area and the first absolutely dated of such sites in the Alps.
Between 9500 and 5500 BC, mobile hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic roamed large parts of the Alps at almost all altitudes. In the Gotthard region we know of campsites near Hospental-Moos UR and Airolo-Alpe di Rodont TI. Here, many tools made of rock crystal and quartz and production waste show the use of this raw material for tool production. Rock crystal was also the preferred raw material for tools in the Simplon Pass region, in the Val des Bagnes and in the Binn Valley, in the Valais.
Finds from glaciers and ice patches, e.g. Ötzi (IT), Schnidejoch BE/VS, have shown the first agricultural societies were also present in the Alps. Other finds come, e.g. from rock shelters. During the Neolithic, rock crystal was also frequently used to make tools. In a rock shelter near Hospental-Rossplatten UR (2170 m a.s.l.), rock crystal extracted nearby was processed for further transport. In the Valais, tools made of rock crystal occur both in campsites, such as Zermatt-Alp Hermetji VS (2600 m a.s.l.) and in graves, for example Sion-Petit Chasseur.
In addition to hunting, gathering and trade or exchange, people also collected raw materials in the Alps. During the Neolithic animals were probably grazed as well.
Tools were made from rock crystal on site at the Untere Stremlücke. Primarily designed to be functional, they are also aesthetically pleasing: (a) drill, (b) scraper, (c) projectile point, (d) possible projectile point.
The hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic did not shun the higher alpine regions, nor glaciers. Glaciers sometimes advanced, sometimes retreated during this period, but had a similar extent as in the 20th century. The annual temperature varied, and it was likely somewhat warmer. The tree line was higher than today and the Ursern valley and the Oberalp pass were largely covered by coniferous forests. In the Surselva, the Flims landslide blocked the valley. Behind this natural dam, a large lake formed.
The Alps were not a barrier, but a cultural landscape. It can be assumed that the Mesolithic people who exploited the quartz vein at the Stremlücke moved not only through the Alps, but also beyond into the Southern Alps and northwards to the Swiss Plateau.
The warming climate of recent decades has causedglaciers and ice patches to release archaeological objects which have preserved in the ice or permafrost for centuries, even millennia. Neolithic finds preserved in the ice, such as those from the Schnidehoch BE/VS or Ötzi, found on the Tisenjoch (IT), have been known since the turn of the millennium. The site near the Untere Stremlücke / Fuorcla da Strem Sut is so far the only such site from the Mesolithic.
Mesolithic people in the Alps made tools from rock crystal, quartz, flint, oil quartzite and radiolarite. After producing intermediate products, such as fine blades and broader flakes, it is possible to a produce a wide range of tools. Among these are simple blades, perhaps used as knives, and also drills, projectile points and scrapers. Primarily functional in design, they are also aesthetically pleasing.
The finds made on rock crystal, quartz and other types of stone help archaeologists understand what activities took place at a camp site, how large the group was that was there, or how long they stayed at a particular place. But wood, leather, fur, textiles, bones and antler were just as important for hunter-gatherers as stone objects. Archaeologically, however, organic objects are rare. Only under special circumstances, such as in glacial ice and permafrost, can they survive. As soon as they thaw, they quickly disintegrate. Of the two antlers from the Stremlücke, the one made of roe deer antler decomposed quickly. The red deer antler fortunately survived.
In the Gotthard area, in Uri and in the Valais, rock crystal and quartz are common for geological reasons. The Untere Stremlücke shows that the long and living tradition of blasting has existed for at least 10 000 years. The oldest rock crystal tools found in Switzerland are even older and date back to the Palaeolithic. However, rock crystal tools from this period are only known from the Swiss Plateau. Whether the rock crystal these tools were made of was collected in moraine deposits or whether people were already searching for rock crystal in the mountains ...
Excavation of the site near the Untere Stremlücke in autumn 2020 by an archaeological team commissioned by the canton of Uri. (Photo: Valentin Luthiger)
After initial documentation of the site (2015) and recovery of finds (2017; Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden), a larger excavation was carried out in autumn 2020 by an archaeological team on behalf of the Abteilung Denkmalpflege und Archäologie (Department of Justice Uri). The almost one ton of finds material has since been wet-sieved and will be scientifically examined in 2021/22. Archaeological fieldwork around the Brunnifirn and in the Gotthard/Oberalp area is also scheduled for 2021/22.
When glaciers and ice patches melt, archaeological finds thaw out, and also at the Brunnifirn. They date to all periods, from the stone ages to the 20th century.
These objects allow us fascinating insights into the past. Objects made of organic materials such as leather, fur, textiles, antlers or wood otherwise rarely survive, but they do in ice and permafrost., not. After defrosting, however, they quickly decompose. We are therefore grateful if you document and report any finds.
Have you found something in the ice or its surroundings?
More information about glacial archaeology and the cantonal archaeological authorities:
Kanton Uri, Justizdirektion
Abt. Denkmalpflege und Archäologie
+41 41 875 23 31 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden
+41 81 257 48 50 / email@example.com
Kantonales Amt für Archäologie
+41 27 606 38 55 / OCA-ARCHEOLOGIE@admin.vs.ch
The Untere Stremlücke / Fuorcla da Strem Sut and other finds from the cantons of Uri and Valais (we do not yet know of any sites from the Surselva, Graubünden) are part of a research and public archaeology project of the Institut “Kulturen der Alpen” and the Canton of Uri that will run 2021/22.
Institut «Kulturen der Alpen»
6460 Altdorf, UR
Tel. +41 41 874 18 90
(limited edition/as long as in stock)
Cantonal archaeologist Christian Auf der Maur im Regionaljournal Zentralschweiz, 29.08.2021
Project manager Marcel Cornelissen im Radio auf SRF Treffpunkt, 21.09.2020
Item about the 2020 excavations on Schweiz Aktuell, 25.09.2020
Media release Canton Uri about the 2020 excavation
Pamphlet «Strahlen. Bergkristall in der Steinzeit. Archäologische Zeugnisse aus dem Gebiet zwischen Gotthard, Ursern und Oberalppass.» (2020; DE) als PDF
Marcel Cornelissen et al., A Glacially Preserved Mesolithic Rock Crystal Extraction Site in the Swiss Alps, in Norwegian Archaeological Review, 17.04.2022, pp 1–7.
Thomas Reitmaier et al., Spätmesolithischer Bergkristallabbau auf 2800 m Höhe nahe der Fuorcla da Strem Sut (Kt. Uri / Graubünden / CH), in: Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt 46 (2016), pp 133–147. Onlinezugriff.
Christian Auf der Maur, Marcel Cornelissen, Die spätmesolithische und bronzezeitliche Fundstelle Hospental-Moos. Ein Einblick in das urgeschichtliche Urserntal, in: Historisches Neujahrsblatt 103 (2013), pp 37–83. Onlinezugriff.
Philippe Curdy et al., Recherches archéologiques dans les régions du Simplon et de l’Albrun (Valais et Piémont), du Mésolithique à l’époque romaine, in: Stéfan Tzortzis / Xavier Delestre (Hg.), Archéologie de la montagne européenne. Actes de la table ronde internationale de Gap, 29 septembre-1er octobre 2008, Aix-en-Provence 2010, pp 185–195. Onlinezugriff.
The project "Bergeis - Rock crystal from the Alps in the Mesolithic" is carried out by the Institute "Kulturen der Alpen" (Uri) at the University of Lucerne in cooperation with the Abteilung Denkmalpflege und Archäologieof the Canton of Uri.
This website, the poster and the flyer were financially supported by the Jubiläumsstiftung of the “Mobiliar” and the Otto Gamma Stiftung.
Further supporters of the research project are: Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden; Kantonales Amt für Archäologie Wallis, Ernst Göhner Stiftung; Korporation Uri, Korporation Ursern, Loterie Romande (VS), Lotteriefonds des Kantons Uri, Fondation «La Murithienne ».