The Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China may be spectacular, but the hidden sites of prehistoric villages are just as much a part of the world’s heritage.
That’s a view shared by six alpine countries – Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Italy – who together are putting forward a selection of ancient pile dwellings for inclusion on the Unesco World Heritage list.
It’s an unusual submission: the remains are largely underwater or in bogs, and thus invisible to the public.
Albert Hafner, who is responsible for underwater archaeology in the canton of Bern, thinks that should not count against it.
“We read the manuals for the world heritage list, and we didn’t find it saying anywhere that it’s not possible to have something that’s not visible. You just have to show that the sites are of outstanding universal value,” he told swissinfo.ch.
The sites in question are the remains of settlements found in lakes and bogs all around the alpine area, which bear witness to the changing way of life over a long period of European history, from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age.
Cart and wheel
It’s a period which saw the arrival of agriculture, animal husbandry, the invention of the cart and the wheel, and knowledge of metal working.
The oldest finds date back to around 5000 BC - more than two thousand years before the pyramids. The youngest are from around 500 BC.
Having lain in water, with no contact with the air, even organic material is exceptionally well preserved. It includes items of food and clothing as well as wooden objects. This has enabled historians to build up a picture of how people lived in the area over four millennia.
The first remains of pile dwellings were discovered in Lake Zurich in 1854. They had been revealed by chance when water levels in the lake were exceptionally low.
It was the 150th anniversary of their discovery that planted the seed for the ambitious project that is now to be submitted to Unesco, said Hafner.
“We wondered why these sites are not on the world heritage list, given their scientific potential and impact on European prehistory.”
The original idea was to put forward the pile dwellings on the so-called Three Lakes – Lakes Biel, Murten and Neuchatel – in western Switzerland. But other Swiss cantons with similar remains expressed an interest in the project. Finally the Federal Office of Culture lent its support to an international candidacy.
This makes sense: pile dwellings have been preserved all around the alpine area, and the populations interacted.
The settlements are known as pile dwellings because the first items to be found were wooden piles driven into the ground. In the 19th century it was presumed that these supported platforms with houses above the water, but modern research methods have shown that they were built on the shore or in boggy areas.
Acceptance by Unesco brings no financial reward, and given that the sites themselves are underwater, they are unlikely to generate much fresh tourism.
The participating countries hope that the candidacy will raise public awareness, and thus contribute to protecting them.
For although the remains have been preserved for thousands of years, they are now facing new threats.
The interests of tourism and boat traffic – anchoring in sensitive areas, badly placed buoys - both potentially conflict with those of archaeologists, while the draining of land for farming has dried out the bogs vital to the preservation of organic remains.
Helmut Schlichtherle, responsible for underwater cultural heritage in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg told swissinfo.ch of successful efforts made in his area in the last ten-15 years to bring farming communities on board.
“We managed to buy large tracts of land in the Federsee area – the largest bog in southern Germany – and to exchange land with the farmers. So we obtained large areas which can be returned to their natural state, by raising the water table again.”
But, as he pointed out, such projects need time and money.
A successful Unesco bid will help bring all the existing activities together, and help scholars across the six countries to exchange knowledge and experience.
The application is unusual not only because it is promoting sites which are invisible, but also because it draws on a sense of cross-border regional identity.
How aware are local people of their alpine heritage? According to Bojan Grobovsek, Slovenia’s ambassador to Switzerland, knowledge of the settlements in his country is quite high – not least thanks to a children’s classic of the 1940s set in a pile dweller’s village.
It may give a romantic view of conditions at the time – “but it made people aware that there was a civilisation there, before the Romans, before the Slavs,” he said.
Furthermore, in Slovenia the remains are close to the capital, Ljubljana. “The inhabitants of these pile dwellings were the first known inhabitants of our capital.”
The existence of the pile villages is fairly well known among the public in southern Germany too, Schlichtherle said. Revellers dressed as “pile dwellers” sometimes figure in local carnivals. But whether Germans elsewhere know about them is a different matter. “Germany is very diverse,” he pointed out.
As for a sense of identity, he cited his own experience: “Having been born on Lake Constance, I have always felt more that I belonged to the community of this Alpine area than part of the pan-German area,” he said.
Hafner described Unesco recognition as a matter of prestige – “but it’s also to help local people to appreciate their cultural heritage better”.
Julia Slater, swissinfo.ch
Prehistoric pile dwellings around the Alps
At the instigation of Switzerland, six alpine countries are submitting a joint application to Unesco for their pile dwellings to be added to the world heritage list.
They are Switzerland, Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia.
In each country only certain regions are involved.
Out of a total of 937 known sites, 156 have been nominated for inclusion on the list.
The six countries have been working on the project since 2004.
The application is being submitted in Paris on January 26 2010.
It will be examined by experts from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), who will recommend whether it should be accepted or not.
A final decision will be made no earlier than the summer of 2011.
Unesco world heritage sites in Switzerland
Current Unesco World Heritage sites in Switzerland:
Old town of the capital, Bern
Monastery in St Gallen
Monastery in Mustair
Castles in Bellinzona
Aletsch glacier region
Monte San Giorgio
La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle