Prehistoric pile dwellings around the Alps
Prehistoric pile dwellings around the Alps, Unteruhldingen, Germany
Real estate agents always say that it’s about location, location, location. The ancient people who lived around the Alps region in central Europe 7000 years ago already knew that, though.
When it came to building their homes, it was all about location. They chose spots along the edges of lakes, rivers and wetlands and constructed wooden huts, elevated above the ground or water level on wooden piles. This gave them multiple strategic advantages.
Firstly, there was the protection from wild animals because, even if these predators could cross the water or marshy ground, they couldn’t climb up to the houses. Secondly, the inhabitants had easy access to the food supplies in the rich waters that flowed down from the mountains. And, most importantly, the waterways on which they constructed their homes were also the main trade routes of the time so it was easy to do business with other people passing by in canoes.
Of course, the idea of ‘business’ is not what we imagine today. The first of these pile dwellings appeared in about 5000BC, before even the most ancient of civilisations rose across the world. However, evidence from the sites show that the Neolithic people of this time were trading things like flint, shells and amber. Over the coming millennia, this style of dwelling remained popular even as carts, pottery and textiles emerged.
None of the original dwellings remain intact from this prehistoric time in Alpine Europe but the locations the people chose have provided one major benefit for us today. The waterlogged environments have protected the foundations and other relics that were left underwater when the inhabitants moved on. For archaeologists, it’s an exceptional conservation of history from settlements that existed from 5000BC to about 500BC that give us an incredible insight into everything from the agricultural systems to metallurgy skills of these people.
There are 937 known sites of pile dwellings in the area around the Alps which stretch across what is today Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland. 111 of them have been protected as a World Heritage Site and almost half of them are in Switzerland. The best one to visit, though, is the Pfahlbau site in the German town of Unteruhldingen.
Pfahlbau Pile Dwelling Museum, Unteruhldingen, Germany
On the edge of Lake Constance, in the town of Unteruhldingen, experts have reconstructed a small community of these ancient pile dwellings. Although it is artificial in the sense that the structures are not original, everything has been put together exactly the way it would have been thousands of years ago. The museum is run by underwater archaeologists and cultural historians to ensure the accuracy of everything.
What is particularly interesting is the way the huts are displayed these days as interconnected. Although the construction is quite rudimentary, there is an advanced sense of community in the design. The dwellings are built in clusters and are connected with elevated walkways. There is even a protective wall built in the water around one of the groups of buildings to create a small protected harbour.
The museum has also incorporated exhibitions, displays and reconstructions within the dwellings to help illustrate the life of the original inhabitants. It is useful and informative but is a reminder that these structures are not strictly a historic site themselves, just representative of the ones that were once scattered all across this region and are now marked only by their underwater foundations.
Strandpromenade 6, D-88690, Unteruhldingen, Germany.
You can see it on a map here.
January – February: Guided tours Monday – Friday at 1430
March: Guided tours Monday – Friday at 1430 and open Saturday – Sunday from 0900 – 1700
April – September: 0900 – 1900
October: 0900 – 1700
November – December: Guided tours Monday – Friday at 1430
Children 6-15: 5,50€