UNESCO World Heritage: Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps

The name „stilt house or pile dwelling“ is used to describe archaeological remains discovered along alpine lake shorelines. These homes and villages once stood on raised stilts over the water around the 4-country region of Lake Constance. In the Upper Swabian bogs, we have discovered ground level settlements as well as "raised" stilt houses. The World Heritage Committee declared "Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps," (including Lake Constance and Upper Swabia) the universal heritage of humanity on June 27, 2011.

Sites Overview

111 sites around the Four-country Lake Constance region belong to the UNESCO World Heritage Site
"Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps,"  as shown in the map overview.

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UNESCO World Heritage!

Unique soil conditions preserve the organic materials found at the pile dwellings and moor wetland settlement sites. Without oxygen exposure, we find intact food remains, weapons, woodworking and agricultural equipment, jewelery, hunting and fishing tackle, household items, textiles, semi-manufactured goods, production waste, crops and plants thousands of years old. The archeologic caches represent a stroke of luck for modern researchers and give scientists a chance to reconstruct a detailed past. UNESCO’s key mission is to preserve these sites for future generations.

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Experience the Stilt House Dwellings!

The ancient sites are invisible, covered by water or wet moorland. Protecting these sensitive archives of early human history is our top priority. Some sites are easily accessible where visitors can dive deep (so to speak) and learn more. Numerous museums on Lake Constance and in Upper Swabia feature selective findings in their exhibitions. The open-air museums offer reconstructed buildings and a comprehensive programs of events for adults, children, school and tour groups.

Site Overview

Do your Part to Protect!

Respect the original sites by observing the No Anchor Zones. Take advantage of museums  that feature World Heritage and stilt house dwellings. Thank you!

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Museums, Exhibitions & Co.

Many UNESCO sites are inaccessible to visitors since they are underwater or buried in wet moorland. For this reason, Lake Constance
museums are the repository of artifacts and information. They offer the public a wide selection of discoveries with
fascinating open-air reconstructions and information boards around the region.

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Questions & Answers

Settlement sizes varied greatly, ranging from small homestead settlements of 2-3 buildings up to 150 buildings. Other settlements of this size were seen again during late Bronze Age in the 10th century BC. Population numbers in these times varied by settlement size, between 10 and 15 people at homestead sites, and up to 600-800 inhabitants in the larger housing complexes. The shoreline villages stood in parallel tightly-packed house rows, or were lined up left and right of a central formation. During the early Bronze Age (around 1800 BC), the dwellers built permanent wooden fortifications with battlements and palisades.

The houses appear to have been fairly easy to build in a short time as demonstrated by modern experimental reconstruction. The builders had great knowledge of wood construction, craftsmanship, and good understanding of local materials. The soft ground near the lakeshore and bogs contributed to the relative ease of building.

Before settlement construction, the site was explored and only the shell of a single building was erected. Two years later, likely in spring, the village was built within the year secured by pallisades. Additional houses were completed one to two years thereafter. The construction process of Bronze Age developments followed a clear development plan. Seven years later, a wooden wall with battlements was built In the free-standing corridor between the palisades and the building.

High quality hardwood logs were harvested locally and used as construction material, whereas later repairs and subsequent houses show weaker logs from less suitable tree species. We conclude that the "better" building material supply had been exhausted from first phase building, so lesser qualities were utilitzed after a time. With a few exceptions, the exploitation of local wood resources led to short-term settlement cycles. The dwellings were used for about 1-2 generations (25-30 years), and the villages were then abandoned when major and expensive repairs were needed. Therefore, ancient dwellers preferred to completely rebuild the entire village on "virgin" shorelines.

There are several reasons for this, though the issue is still open for discussion:

  • It was much easier to set poles in the soft lake bottom rather than dig post holes into hard soil.
  • Alpine lake levels fluctuatate during the year creating ideal waste disposal during summer high water fluctuations.
  • The settlements were easier to protect, as an approaching threat from the lakeside was easily noticed.
  • A lake dwelling was on major transport routes, for trade and commerce.
  • Settling in the shoreline zones required a matching construction method. Groups who traditionally favored large-scale constructions for family groups and animals under one roof did not settle in the riparian shoreline zones. Smaller social units settled along the shore in houses of lightweight construction. At least in the Neolithic dwellings, we find that a household community also represented a single economic entity. In the Neolithic era, the cultural socio-economic conditions of the settler groups decided whether they settled on the banks or not.

The pile dwellings and moor communities were built from wood and clay with wickerwork walls fortified with clay or split boards. Some walls were sealed with mosses. Dome-shaped ovens existed, but open fireplaces were the preferred cooking/heating method. The floor was lined with clay to isolate the underlying wooden floor and reduce fire risk.

The people who lived in them are still a mystery, but we do know how the houses were built, what they ate ... whether it was wild prey or pets. We can also reconstruct an agricultural landscape of where fields were located, what was grown and how, and which herbs and fruits were collected. It is unknown where the pile-dwellers buried their dead and if they had cemeteries. There is no personal information to share about the people themselves, their illnesses, or how long they lived.

Even religious evidence is difficult to identify and understand. In the Ludwigshafen Seehalde parcel, an inside wall painted in white with seven female figures was discovered in a building known as the „cult house.“ The female images are wearing different types of clothes with just their breasts sculpted in 3D form. Extraordinary finds like the cervical vertebrae of a large wild cow, a handle vessel with stylized arms, and small clay bust for cooking birch tee give us an imagined context of their spiritual cosmology. It is unknown how they practiced their spiritual beliefs and rituals.

The oldest settlements were built in the Neolithic period around 3,900 BC, the most recent dating to the late Bronze Age around 850 BC.

The organic materials are intact due to centuries of constant water coverage. The finds lie in disposal layers of shore settlements, enclosed by lake sediment. As soon as the artifacts make contact with oxygen, aerobic bacteria begin to break down the wood, textiles or plant remains. It is extremely important that these sites are properly protected so that no oxygen reaches the layers and piles. The shallow-water zone sites around Lake Constance are covered with geotextile, sandbags and gravel. Measures for keeping the bog sites „wet“ are promising in Upper Swabia. Protective measures are developed, implemented and regularly reviewed by the State Office for the Preservation of Historic Monuments in cooperation with other experts and authorities.

1856 is the year specified for pile dwelling discovery on Lake Constance. Kaspar Löhle, a wine grower and council clerk in Wangen had been collecting artifacts for several years when he made the connection with the stilt houses on Lake Zurich discovered by Ferdinand Keller two years earlier. During construction work and new road building along the shoreline, new villages have been  recently discovered.

The pile dwelling village in Unteruhldingen is part of the Pfahlbaumuseum founded in 1922. The reconstructions are based on excavation finds and details of various Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements (4,000-850 BC) from Lake Constance and Upper Swabia. The open-air musuem also features a pre-historic and early-historical research institute and permanent exhibition. The museum also focuses on experimental archeology and public education programs.

Archaeologists and excavation technicians document their excavation findings with drawings and photographs. The finds are salvaged, cataloged and professionally packed, then they go through a restoration process. The wood is sent to a special laboratory (Dendrolab) to determine the wood type and its age is based on the width of the tree rings.

At the excavation sites, sediment samples are collected and sent to the botanical and the sedimentological laboratories of the State Office for the Preservation of Monuments where thousands of plant, pollen, insect remains, fungal spores and parasites are idenitified. Bones specimens are examined by specialists in osteology.

After the scientific findings are evaluated and collated, they are presented to the public. Since many sites are under water and must be protected. The general public has limited access to viewing -- only in the region’s participating museums and touring exhibitions. Organic materials like textiles and wood require special exhibition conditions.

All historic objects belong to the respective country or canton. If you find anything from one of the archeologic sites, please get in touch with the state office for the preservation of monuments, wetland archeology department, or the Pile Dwelling Information Center.

Contact Information

(D) Pfahlbauten-Informationszentrum Baden-Württemberg
Tel.: +49 7735 93 77 7118 | Mail: pfahlbauten@rps.bwl.de

(D) Bayerisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege
Tel.: +49 89 210140 73 | Mail: markus.gschwind@blfd.bayern.de

(CH) Swiss Coordination Group UNESCO Palafittes
Tel.: +41 61 261 30 91 | E-Mail: 

(AT) Kuratorium Pfahlbauten

Tel.:  +43 (0)664 88672334  | E-Mail: info@pfahlbauten.at