Mountain ice. Rock crystal from the Alps in the Mesolithic period.

Website content

Stone Age in the Canton of Uri and the Gotthard Region

Untere Stremlücke / Fuorcla da Strem Sut

In a crevice at the edge of the retreating Brunni firn, near the Untere Stremlücke in Uri (2831 m a.s.l.), a spotter found two pieces of antler and fragments of wood in 2013, in addition to many rock crystal shards. These are currently the oldest organic finds preserved in ice in the Alps.

Hunter-gatherers repeatedly visited the crevice between 8000/7000 and 5800 BC and mined rock crystal there to make tools. They left behind rock crystal tools, production waste and the two antler poles. This rock crystal mining site is the first known in the Gotthard area and the first absolutely dated in the Alps.

Middle Stone Age

The mobile hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic period roamed large parts of the Alpine region and almost all altitudes between 9500 and 5500 BC. In the Gotthard region we know of campsites near Hospental-Moos UR and Airolo-Alpe di Rodont TI. Here, many tools and manufacturing waste made of rock crystal and quartz testify to the use of these raw materials. Rock crystal was also the preferred raw material for tools around the Simplon Pass, in the Val des Bagnes and in the Binn Valley VS.

Neolithic Age

We know about the first agricultural societies in the Alps from finds from glaciers and firn fields, e.g. Ötzi (IT), Schnidejoch BE/VS and rock shelters. Rock crystal was also frequently used in the Neolithic period. Under 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 (...m a.s.l.) and in graves, for example Sion-Petit Chasseur.

In addition to hunting, gathering, trade or exchange, the Alps also served people to procure materials - in the Neolithic period then probably also for grazing.

Glaciers, climate and landscape

The hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic were not afraid to walk on glaciers. The glaciers sometimes increased and sometimes decreased during this period, but had a similar extent as in the 20th century. The annual temperature varied, and it was probably somewhat warmer. The tree line was higher than today and the Ursern valley and the Oberalp plain were largely covered by coniferous forests. In the Surselva, the Flims landslide blocked the valley, and a large lake had formed behind it.

The Alps were not a barrier, but a living cultural landscape. It can be assumed that the Mesolithic people who exploited the gap at the Stremlücke moved not only in the Alpine region, but also beyond it in the Southern Alps and northwards to the Central Plateau.

The climate change of recent decades has led to glaciers and ice fields releasing archaeological objects that were 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 Middle Stone Age.

Stone, antler and wood

From stone to tool

Mesolithic people in the Alpine region made tools from rock crystal, quartz, flint, oil quartzite and radiolarite. A wide range of tools could be produced from intermediate products, such as fine blades and broader knock-offs. Among them are simple blades, perhaps used as knives, drills, gravers and scrapers. Primarily functional in design, they are also aesthetically pleasing.

The finds of rock crystal, quartz and other types of stone help archaeologists to assess what activities took place at a camp site, how large the group was that stayed there, or how long they stayed at a particular place. Wood, leather, fur, textiles, bones and antlers were just as important for wild hunters as stone objects. Archaeologically, however, organic objects are a rarity. Only under special circumstances, such as glacial ice and permafrost, can they survive. As soon as they thaw, they quickly perish. Of the two antlers of the Stremlücke, the one of the deer decomposed quickly. The deer antlers fortunately preserved better.

10 000 years of rays

In the Gotthard area, in Uri and in the Valais, rock crystal and quartz are common for geological reasons. The Lower 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 period. However, rock crystal tools from this period are only known from the Central Plateau. Whether the rock crystal was collected in moraine deposits or whether there were already "radiants" back then ...

Excavations

After initial documentation of the site (2015) and recovery of find material (2017; Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden), a larger excavation was carried out in autumn 2020 by an archaeological team on behalf of the Department of Monument Preservation & Archaeology (Department of Justice Uri). The almost one tonne of find material has since been slurried and will be scientifically examined in 2021/22. Archaeological fieldwork around the Brunnifirn and in the Gotthard/Oberalp area is also scheduled for 2021.

 

Please report any finds!

When glaciers and firn fields melt, archaeological finds thaw out again and again, and this is also the case at Brunnifirn. They come from all epochs, from the Stone Age to the 20th century.

The objects allow us fascinating insights into the past, not least because organic materials such as leather, fur, textiles, antlers or wood are preserved. After being melted down, 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?

  • Leave the object in place (unless it is in immediate danger).
  • Take photos (object and surroundings)
  • Mark the place of discovery
  • Note coordinates or draw them on a map
  • Immediately report any finds to the cantonal authorities

​​​​​​​More about glacier archaeology and the cantonal offices:

https://alparch.ch/ (DE/FR/IT/RU/EN)

Kanton Uri, Justizdirektion
Abt. Denkmalpflege und Archäologie
+41 41 875 23 31 / archaeologie@ur.ch
www.ur.ch/dienstleistungen/3429  

Archäologischer Dienst Graubünden
+41 81 257 48 50 / info@adg.gr.ch
www.archaeologie.gr.ch

KAA, VS
Kantonales Amt für Archäologie
+41 27 606 38 55 / OCA-ARCHEOLOGIE@admin.vs.ch
https://www.vs.ch/de/web/archeologie

"Mountain Ice - Rock Crystal from the Alps in the Middle Stone Age"

The Lower Strem Gap / Fuorcla da Strem Sut and other finds from the cantons of Uri and Valais (we do not yet know of any sites from Graubünden) are part of a research and mediation project of the Institute Cultures of the Alps and the Canton of Uri that will run in 2021/22.

www.kulturen-der-alpen.ch/bergkristall

Flyer and poster can be ordered here

Institut «Kulturen der Alpen»
Dätwylerstrasse 25
6460 Altdorf, UR

Mail

Tel. +41 41 874 18 90

(limited edition/as long as in stock)

Download FlyerDownload Plakat

[Bitte in "Englisch" übersetzen:] Rahmenprogramm und Veranstaltungen

Besuch der Fundstelle

[Bitte in "Englisch" übersetzen:]

Nach 2020 finden auch dieses Jahr Feldarbeiten rund um den Brunnifirn statt. Im Rahmen der Feldarbeiten und des Projektes kann die Fundstelle besucht werden.

Samstag, 11.09.2021: kurzer Vortrag zu Gletscherarchäologie und Bergkristall in der Steinzeit in den Schweizer Alpen (Marcel Cornelissen, Archäologe Institut «Kulturen der Alpen» & Kanton Uri).

Sonntag, 12.09.2021: Besuch der Fundstelle. Marcel Cornelissen wird von 09:00 bis 16:00 auf der Fundstelle sein und Auskünfte geben (bei gutem Wetter). Bei Bedarf Vortrag am Abend.

Hinweise:

Further Information

Information on the Lower Strem Gap / Fuorcla da Strem Sut:

Kantonsarchäologe Christian Auf der Maur im Regionaljournal Zentralschweiz, 29.08.2021

Projektleiter Marcel Cornelissen im Radio auf SRF Treffpunkt, 21.09.2020

Bericht zur Ausgrabung 2020 auf Schweiz Aktuell, 25.09.2020

Medienmitteillung des Kanton Uri zur Ausgrabung 2020

Broschüre «Strahlen. Bergkristall in der Steinzeit. Archäologische Zeugnisse aus dem Gebiet zwischen Gotthard, Ursern und Oberalppass.» (2020) als PDF

Scientific essays on the topic

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), S. 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), S. 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, S. 185–195. Onlinezugriff.

Supporting

The project "Mountain Ice - Rock Crystal from the Alps in the Middle Stone Age" is carried out by the Uri Institute "Cultures of the Alps" at the University of Lucerne in cooperation with the Department of Monument Preservation and Archaeology of the Canton of Uri.

This website, the poster and the flyer were financially supported by the Mobiliar Jubilee Foundation and the Otto Gamma Foundation.

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 ».