Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps
Marc-Antoine Kaeser, director of Laténium, Park and museum of archaeology of Neuchâtel:
What is your role in relation to the pile-dwellings?
At the Laténium, which is the largest archaeological museum in Switzerland, we naturally have a very strong responsibility for the development of the lake sites, where hundreds of thousands of objects preserved today in our depots have been discovered. We work closely with researchers from the cantonal department and the University Institute, who have their offices and laboratories in the museum. These synergies provide a very solid basis for the exchange with the public, which we want to be as broad as possible. In addition to prehistory enthusiasts, we are also targeting children, families and tourists passing through Switzerland. The airy contemporary museography and the colourful and bright design of our permanent exhibition make archaeology really attractive to everyone.
How did you get to the Latenium?
I studied here, in Paris and at Harvard (USA), I have travelled a lot for work in Switzerland and I often travel abroad for teaching and research. But it is at the Latenium that I breathe best: here, all the resources are gathered to make an archaeologist happy! And to be honest, working in front of such a panorama is irreplaceable. It must be said that I'm a lover of Lake Neuchâtel, with its very special colour movements. In the summer, I often take express breaks to take a dip in the water between two sessions: a few dozen metres from my office, I bathe in a timeless universe, contemplating the Alps in the distance...
What fascinates you the most about the pile-dwellings?
The richness and extraordinary diversity of the objects preserved tell us often very touching details of the daily life of our distant ancestors from the Neolithic and Bronze Age. There are, of course, weapons and ornaments of great finesse of execution, made with precious materials imported from thousands of kilometres away. But what fascinates me the most are the wicker baskets, the apples and hazelnuts, the modest spoon or the wooden toys that are more than 3000 years old and perfectly preserved: when you look at them, you get the impression that the lakeside village was abandoned by its inhabitants only a few days ago!
What would you recommend?
In Switzerland, there are 56 World Heritage lake sites: it is impossible to see them all! Of course, you can explore them on your smartphone alone, with the mobile application "Palafittes Guide". But in my opinion, the most surprising and direct access is the "Archaeological Window" at the Opera House in the centre of Zurich: when you go down into the underground car park, you are suddenly plunged into prehistory, thanks to film projections and a small exhibition. Otherwise, I would recommend spending a few hours, in the right season, in the reconstructed lakeside village of Gletterens (Fribourg), where animators regularly offer workshops and demonstrations that give a very concrete idea of life in a Neolithic village on Lake Neuchâtel. And of course, I recommend a visit to the Laténium (Neuchâtel), which has been awarded the Council of Europe Museum Prize, and which offers a very beautiful and comprehensive exhibition in an idyllic setting with reconstructed lake houses in the open air, in the archaeological park by the lake.
What activities do you suggest to do?
Take the boat from the port of Neuchâtel, in the city centre, to get to the Latenium: it takes 15 minutes, and it's free... Or walk along the lakeside promenade; the best way is to leave from the Saint-Blaise/Lac train station. The shores are laid out in a very particular way, with a small pond, sandy beaches, bays and creeks that welcome a very rich vegetation and fauna: it almost looks like a prehistoric natural landscape!
Mai 2016 (translated from French)