First of all, many thanks to the deputy director of Laténium Museum Miss/Mrs Delley for giving me such an interesting and informative tour in the museum and to director Mr Kaeser for making this arrangement possible.
Laténium Archaeology Park and Museum Hauterive-Neuchâtel is the biggest archaeological museum in Switzerland and the name actually came from the word “La Tène”, a site visible from the museum across the lake, which has come to “designate Celtic civilization in the second Iron Age”, and the word “museum”.
Laténium consists of the museum, the archaeological park, the canton’s archaeology service, and the Institute of Prehistory in University of Neuchâtel. What is accessible and of interest to the general public is the museum and the archaeological park.
The theme of the permanent exhibition at the Laténium is “Yesterday… Between the Mediterranean and the North Sea”. The permanent exhibition is shown in eight different rooms, on two floors, covering total space of 2200 square meters. It is based on a unique collection of artefacts found during both land and underwater excavations in the canton of Neuchâtel from 19th century to the present.
Thanks to various info panels, description or explanation next to the objects, models, drawings, audiovisual media equipments, games for children and so on, this museum is suitable for not only adults but also children and elderly people. Don’t be scared if you think you don’t know anything about archaeology, the audioguide together with the models will explain to you our own past in an easily understandable, relaxing and fun way. That’s why I wanna emphasize that Laténium is for professionals as well amateurs who are interested in archaeology and do keep in mind, archaeology can also be fun.
One special feature about this museum is that it takes visitors on a journey from recent to the ancient times, from medieval to Palaeolithic. As Miss/Mrs Delley explained, this is because Laténium wants its visitors to learn about archaeology like professional archaeologists do. When the archaeologists start the digging precess, the more recent items or sites usually start to appear first and the deeper they go, the more ancient world starts to see the light.
In this post, I’ll first of all provide some useful information to the potential visitors and then in the second part, I’ll explain a bit more about the floor plan or the room plan of the museum and some artefacts or items that interested me during my visit (as well as some personal tips about how to make your visit pleasant and meaningful). In the third part, I’ll focus on the archaeological park, which is free to the public and you can visit it anytime you want. Last but not least, I’ll focus on the “Lake dwellers” room whose exhibition is focused on prehistoric pile dwellings, which has been inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage list. If you have any further question please don’t hesitate to comment or write me directly. Also, considering I’m not an expert in archaeology, if I have made any mistakes in this post, please share your opinions with me and I believe we can have a talk and research about it to reach an agreement.
1. Practical info about visiting Laténium
Mankind, time, and environment, these are the 3 key factors “building up” the main permanent exhibition in Laténuim. Archaeologists at work, exceptional fieldwork discoveries and images of our ancestors, Laténium provides much to see, to hear, to feel, to experience, and to imagine. My suggested visiting time in the museum is around 2 hours with audioguides. However, the archaeological park is also worth visiting and according to you interest, the visiting time could vary from half to 2 hours.
Museum: Open Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 am to 5 pm. (25th December and 1st of January : the Museum is closed. The Museum is open on Easter Monday and Whit Monday.)
Archaeological park: Free access
- Adults: CHF 9.-
- Students, apprentices, seniors, unemployed, disabled : CHF 5.-
- Children (from 7 to 16) : CHF 4.-
- Family (Parents and children) : CHF 20.-
Groups (from 10 people):
- Adults : CHF 6.-
- Students, apprentices, seniors, unemployed, disabled : CHF 4.-
- Children : CHF 2.-
Free admission :
- The first Sunday of every month.
- Swiss Museum Passport, Raiffeisen card, ICOM, AMS
- Holders of the “Laténium” medal (sold at the front desk)
Laténium is easily accessible by boat and bus from Neuchâtel port and Neuchâtel train staton. If you arrive at Neuchâtel station by train , you can either go there by boat directly or take the funicular train to the bus stop “Université” and then take bus No. 101 in the direction of “Marin” and get of at “Laténium”. Once you arrive at “Laténium” bus stop, just follow the signs and you will find the museum easily. On a sunny day, it would be a great opportunity to have a ship cruise and enjoy the lake, the surrounding villages and of course the snowy mountains at the background. It takes only 15 mins from Neuchâtel port to “Laténium” stop and once you get off, you are already in the archaeological park and the museum is right in front of you. Of course, there’s enough paring space if it is more convenient for you to drive there by car.
Laténium also offers various guided tours and educational workshops for people who wanna know more about archaeology. The guided tours are available in various languages and can be adjusted according to your own needs or interest (for example, museum, park, focused on UNESCO pile dwellings, temporary exhibits etc). Workshops include creative workshop, discovery workshop, teenager workshop, family activities etc. Anyway, Laténuim provides something for everyone, from 4 to 104 years old. For more info or if you wanna book a guided tour or workshop please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
If you wanna explore the museum just by yourself but would like to know some explanation, audioguide is probably a better option for you. It is available in German, French, Italian and English. Renting the necessary equipment including the headset costs CHF 5.- and you will be asked to leave a form of identification at the front desk during your visit.
Remember, this modern museum welcomes all people, whether you’re disabled or not. Wheel-chairs are available at the front desk of the museum and Special guided tours for visually impaired or blind people are available on request.
Overflown with information? Tired after learning so much about our past? Overlooking the archaeological park and Lake Neuchâtel, with a terrace facing the western range of the Swiss Alps, the museum cafe with the fantastic view now is the best place to go. Why not having some snacks and a cup of coffee before your exploration of the park? On a sunny day and if you are lucky, you can even see as far as Mont Blanc. Out in the archaeological park, picnic is allowed in the lake houses and there’s also a archaeology-themed playground especially designed for the children.
2. Laténium the museum
The museum is divided into 8 different rooms located on two floors. As I’ve mentioned before, from the entrance to the exit, you will be traveling in time from the recent to the ancient times. The 1st room is the introduction room, which explains that mankind, time and environment are the keys factors in archaeology. Unfortunately when I was there the room was under construction but it will be finished and open to the public in September.
The 2nd room (A.D. 1600 ~ A.D. 476) is divided into four parts, each going lower than the previous one. The exhibition dates back from the Renaissance to the Middle Ages. You will see the stonework of urban centers (religious and profane architecture), the interior of a dwelling (domestic life), a cemetery and ship wreck found at the bottom of Lake Neuchâtel and its cargo of earthenware dishes and iron bars (Miss/Mrs Delley told me that these earthenware dishes appear to be new and never used).
The pic above is the decoration on a oven and the animals actually represent certain meanings.
This is the grave of a teenager boy and an adult woman (probably his mother or aunt but due to the lack of DNA test, it is yet hard to determine their relationship).
Before entering the 3rd room, I’d like to remind you to pay attention the orange “columns”, which are usually located at the entrance of most of the rooms. Look through the small glass window and you will have a general idea of what life was like at that period of time. If you are confused by the time periods of each room, this “column” also gives you certain information.
The 3rd room (A.D. 476 ~ 1 B.C.)is about the Gallo-Roman times and the displays are arranged based on a well-ordered grid cadastre. The size of the Wavre Mausoleum, as shown by the scale model, is really amazing. The Colombier villa is believed to be one of the most beautiful Gallo-Roman palaces in Switzerland. Both models show both their exact dimensions and their high architectural quality. Here you can see the mosaics, wall paintings, marble busts, and statues of gods. If you are with children, a mini-laboratory allows visitors to reconstruct part of a wall painting.
The first pic below shows a brick pile and with a drawing model and some explanation, I came to realize that several piles like this are actually used for supporting the bath room, while leaving space for fire to heat the water. At that time, Bath room was not merely a place to take a bath but a vital and indispensable place for socializing. The forth pic below shows the beautiful statue of Julia, but due to insufficient written documents, archaeologist only know that it was made in northern Italy and was transported here probably after being traded by several merchants. However, one surprising point is that this statue was actually painted and you can still see color left on the hair.
The 4th room (400 B.C. ~ 4400 B.C.) faces the fish farming pond in the archaeological park and also exhibited the largest object in Laténium, the 200-meter long Bevaix Gallo-Roman barge. Right next to it you will see a showcase with two boats, some equipments and a big screen showing the secrets of underwater excavations. Actually Neuchâtel gained an international reputation for the digout of the underwater remains such as canoes and boats. Some of the findings are even among Europe’s finest.
The 5th room (1 B.C. to 800 B.C.) exhibits the world-famous site La Tène and its treasures. The Celts remain a mystery mainly because of the contrast of their violent customs and gently-rounded shapes so typical of their art. I’ve always heard about the fine craftsmanship of the Celts and this exhibition hall gives precious insight into the cultural refinement of their society, violent, yet inventive. However, one mystery remains that compared to Greek artefatcs of the same period of time, it seems that human faces are rather rare on the Celtic objects.
The 6th room (800 B.C. ~ 5500 B.C.) is about lake dwellings from Bronze to Neolithic Age and it is the main purpose of my visit to Laténium. However, I’ll introduce to you in detail in the last chapter about its importance, value and why 111 sites have been inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage site. For now, let’s just move on to the 7th room and follow the hunters’ path.
The 7th room (3500 B.C. ~ 13000 B.C.) invites visitors to explore the hunters’ track on a winding trail. All life here was organized around the animal. Hunting and gathering are the theme as you can see animals dominate the exhibition in this hall. However, unfortunately there are few traces of their passage and the artefacts found are rather small. With your imagination, you can sit around the hearth and take a close look at the daily life of our ancestors.
You will still see some artefacts such as tiny jet statues, ochre palettes, projectile fragments and tools made from silex or deer antlers. What’s worth noticing is the tooth of a wolf, which indicates that people might have got a baby wolf and domesticated it with them.
After the hunters’ trail, you will pass through 25000 years of ice age in just a few steps.
After you enter a cave, you are in the 8th room (40000 B.C. ~ 100000B.C.), the Contencher Cave, which contains the oldest known traces of human occupation in this canton. Here you will find the remains of 62 species of animals, including cave bears. This cave gave humans shelter during the entire Mousterian period, together with the animals. However, the highlight here is the upper jawbone of a Neanderthal woman, which is considered the oldest human remains found in the whole Switzerland. It’s is tested by current technology that she probably died 40000-50000 years ago.
The last showcase you will see on your way out is the presentation of human evolution. From the youngest to the most ancient, skulls of different types of hominids and typical tools of that period of time are displayed. A Swiss army knife for the present-day human, a flat chisel for the Cro-Magnon man, a scraper for the Neanderthal man, a hand axe for Homo Erectus, a chopper for Homo Habilis, and no specific tool for the Australopithecus. What could be a better way to see how our ancestors evolved till nowadays?
3. Laténium Archaeological Park
Located at the foot of the Jura mountain, on the shore of Lake Neuchâtel, this park is not only a perfect place for locals and visitors to have a stroll and enjoy the scenery but also a book, which tells the story of this region as well as its people from the end of Ice Age till today.
This archaeological park was actually built prior to the museum itself. Until the late 70s, all this area was underwater, thus never fully explored. Thanks to the construction of the A5 highway, the architects and the archaeologists coordinated, negotiated and cooperated and made essential discoveries in this region. Nowadays, most artefacts stored in the museum storage units are found during the construction work of the highway.
The construction of the museum and the highway revealed three major archaeological sites: two pile-dweller villages, one dating from the Bronze Age (1056-871 BC), the other one from the Neolithic (3810-3790 BC) and a hunter-gatherer camp dating back to the Magdalenian period (around 13,000 BC).
This park is indeed an open air museum because of the full size reconstructions and authentic archaeological artefacts presented here. You will be able to see 1. mixed oak forest, 2. the cupule rock, 3. the erratic boulders, 4. the landscape as it was 15000 years ago, 5. a camp from 15000 years ago, 6. a house from 3000 years ago, 7. the world of the dead, 8. the Roman garden, 9. a village from 6000 years ago, 10. when the lake was high, 11. Gallo-Roman lighter, 12. the Celtic bridge and of course other facilities such as children’s playground and picnic area. Considering there’s no English explanation on the info panels, I’d like to add some description based on the information provided by “Laténium, Visitor’s guide”. The numbers I provided above before each site is in accordance with the numbers on the panel.
(1)During the Mesolithic period, the Swiss Plateau and the foot of the Jura mountains were covered with oak, elm, linden and hazel forests. Although nowadays we can still see these tress, the scale is much smaller than before.
(2)Hundreds of rocks with small cup-shaped cupules are found at the foot of the Jura mountains. However, no one knows who put them here and what they were used for. Some assumptions are that they represent games, landmarks or some form of memory aid. Unfortunately, no one knows for sure.
(3)22000 years ago, most of Switzerland and Europe were covered by glaciers. As the climate got warmer, the glaciers began to withdraw and Alpine blocks or Jurassic rocks were carried long distance by the glaciers.
(4)Around 13000 B.C., the land surface was covered with sand, clay or gravel without any trees as we see nowadays. The only “trees” at that time were dwarf willow and birch.
(5)Two camps set up by the Cro-Magnon man were discovered during the construction of the A5 highway and here exhibits the moulding of the central part of the second camp. You can see hearth, stone seats, wild horse and reindeer bones and evidence or flint working emphasized by the spotlight.
(6)This reconstruction of a Late Bronze Age house illustrates a building technique involving raising the floors in order to avoid flood. Remains of dwellings like this have been found at many sites in Switzerland.
(8)Romans houses are usually equipped with a garden planted with herbs, plants, flowers with bright colors and the ones built for some luxurious villas usually have a basin in the center of the garden with a fountain and a sculpture.
(9)In 1984, a Neolithic village was found at a spot where a reconstruction of its remains can be seen in the park today. The village contained six large rectangular houses built directly on the ground without any floors. The village was inhabited between 3810 and 3790 B.C.
(10)Between 1869 and 1891, the surface of the lake was as high as this pond, and this region was often flooded. However, 3000, 6000 and 15000 years ago, Lake Neuchâtel was lower than it is today. Water levels of the three lakes have varied dramatically over the 15000 years, sometimes with a different of 5 meter.
(11)The boat in the water is the experimental copy of the 200-meter long Bevaix Gallo-Roman barge, which was mentioned in the second chapter in the 4th room. It was built from large oak trees and sank in 182 A.D. Both the boat exhibited in the museum and here in the lake are copies of the original one, which is still underwater for preservation purposes. However, the one exhibited in the museum is a perfect cast, showing all the details which can be seen from the original. This huge boat was especially used for shipping limestone from the Jura region to Avenches to erect monuments for the Gallo-Roman colony.
(12)In 1965, the remains of a wooden bridge were found not far from this bridge. Over 90m long, the wooden bridge served as the connector between the Swiss Plateau and the Jura region from the 3rd to the 1st century B.C. This reconstruction was built according to the structural clue such as the wooden pilings, collapsed timbers and large blocks of stone.
If you still have question concerning the arrangement in the museum or the plan in the archaeological park please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’ll try my best to provide as much help as possible. Remember, you can always get a floor plan from the reception desk before entering the museum and the two general panels located at the two entrances of the park give you a general idea of how the park is designed and where the reconstructions or historical site that I mentioned are located.
4. Pile Dwellings in Switzerland (UNESCO World Heritage)
As I said above, last but not least, in this chapter I’ll emphasize the exhibited objects in the 6th room, focusing on lake dwellings around the Alps in Switzerland. Why do people choose to live by the water? How can organic materials be preserved so well after thousands of years? How was the life of our ancestors from Bronze to Neolithic Age? Most importantly, why have these sites been inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage? What is their cultural value and what can these sites tell us about our ancestors? You will find the answers by reading this chapter, or even better, to visit Laténuim to discover, experience and find the answers by yourself.
In order to have a better understanding of the exhibitions in Laténium and pile dwellings, it is important to have a basic knowledge of the periods of prehistory. Prehistory is referred to the timeline from first use of stone tools (around 3.3 million years ago) to the invention of writing system (around 5300 years ago).
Prehistory is in general composed of 3 ages: Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. Stone Age can be further categorized into Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), Neolithic (New Stone Age, with progression of cultural and behavioral characteristics and changes, including the use of wild and domesticated crops and animals). You might have heard of Chalcolithic Age (Copper Age) and it is usually regarded as the transition age from Neolithic to Bronze Age. This period of time is marked by the use of metal and is commonly recognized as the early stage of Bronze Age.
Having understood the timeline of prehistory, the lake dwellings we are talking about here appeared and flourished from Neolithic to Bronze Age. The first question that appeared to me and possibly to most of you is that why are these prehistoric lake dwelling sites inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage list? These sites consist of a unique group of exceptionally well-preserved culturally rich archaeological sites, thus, one of the most important sources of studying early agrarian societies. These sites hold not easily accessible yet essential information, which provides insight into the life and the interaction of mankind and the environment, during the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Alpine Europe. The evidence gathered from these sites are interpreted by the archaeologists and later explained to us, the non-experts, to have a detailed perception of the agriculture, animal husbandry, development of metallurgy over a period of more than 4000 year.
On 27th June 2011, the UNESCO committee voted to add the properties of “prehistoric pile dwellings around the Alps” to the world heritage site. Led by Swiss Federal Office of Culture, involving 5 other countries around the Alps, France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Slovenia, 111 lake dwelling sites were chose according to the criteria set by the UNESCO, integrity, authenticity, and representativeness, out of around 1000 settlements for inclusion in the application for world heritage status, 56 sites among which are in Switzerland. These chosen sites, with almost intact objects, comprise the complete cultural context of the archaeological phenomena. However, inscription to the UNESCO World Heritage site is not only for emphasizing their value, but also for emphasizing the protection and recognition. Threats from the use of the lakes, intensification of agriculture, development of the surrounding cities or towns as well as natural causes make monitoring these precious sites a vital but difficult task.
The serial property of 111 individual sites contain remains of pile dwelling settlements in and around the Alps from around 5000 ~ 500 B.C. At the time, these settlements were built on lake shores, along rivers or in wetlands. Nowadays. most of the pile dwellings are under water and archaeologist are both happy and annoyed by this fact. Why? The disadvantage is rather obvious that these underwater sites are not easily accessible, therefore causing much trouble for the excavations, research and analysis. However, without these waterlogged conditions, these organic materials would have disappeared long time ago.
Different from dry mineral soil, where non-organic materials survive such as stone, bone, pottery and metal, organic materials are well-preserved in waterlogged conditions. Remains of the construction of the pile dwellings together with the organic waste left behind by human activities such as preparation and consumption of food and the processing of organic raw materials can highlight the culture, economy, environment, lifestyle as well as the variety of the early farming communities.
The first archaeological dive took place on the 24th August, 1854, at Morges, La Grande Cité. Morlot the diver was equipped with an iron diving helmet supplied with air by a hand bump in the boat. Unfortunately he only retrieved a few pebbles but no archaeological objects. After this rather disappointing experiment, archaeologists kept their preference of using the more conservative and conventional method of fishing out the artefacts in the water. They kept using equipments such as pincers, various types of rake, shovels and scrapers which to a large extent unavoidably damaged the historical objects while obtaining them. Luckily, with the development of modern technology and the emphasis on the protection of these sites by the UNESCO, artefacts dug out nowadays are well attended to and are stored in the best suitable environment.
As the pictures shown below, the objects retrieved from the water demonstrate how societies interact with the environment, in response to new technologies and to the impact of climate change. Tools, jewelry and decorations made of shell, gold, amber, pottery indicate that trading has been happening within this region and canoes and wooden carriages verify this assumption. They were used as means of transporting goods from one community to another and from this region to the other around the Alps. Below you can see the furrowing stick and plough as well as harvest knives used by early farmers, working axes, the wooden wheel of a carriage, the bones of various animals, the bones of fishes, the fishing hooks, fishing nets, harpoons, arrows, needles, Late Stone Age combs made of viburnum shoots, clothes fragments, a small bag with decoration (probably like a wallet for women) and shoes etc. As I showed above, cultivated plants remains allow us to find out what our ancestors planted, grew and consumed. For example, remains of wheat, emmer, einkorn, spelt, barley, millet, flax, poppy, pea, lentil, broad bean and so on have been found and because of this discovery, we now have a better understanding of the agriculture during that period of time.
What can we tell from the polished stone axes? Stone axes reflects the change of relationship between human and environment. Dense forests had to be clear in order to create fertile land for farming. However, these polished stone axes were not necessarily actually used by farmers, as it was rather different to make them (to dig a hole in the middle of the stone without breaking it). Therefore they could be regarded as decorations for more privileged society members.
You must be wondering, has social hierarchy already appeared at that period of time? It is very likely as collaborative work had to be led and coordinated. Neolithic period marked the beginning of inequality and a social hierarchy developed. From that time on, human beings’ social status was no longer merely dependent on the hunting skills or seniority but more on the ability to lead a group and the ability to accumulate the goods that strengthened the power of an elite. A clear sign of social inequality was the appearance of the megalithic tombs, whose construction involved considerable amount of work.
Another thing worth mentioning in the 6th room is the prehistoric stone pillar with a human face and hands. This was probably carved and erected for religious purposes. However, is this god or an ancestral figure? No one knows at this moment.
I guess now you can see how much we can know about our ancestors from studying the pile dwellings. However, are these research results merely archaeologists’ thoughts or assumptions? Of course not. Scientific methods are always used in order to provide clues or verify these assumptions.
One of the popular and commonly used technologies is called dendrochronology, which was developed in the early 1920s and applied from the 1950s. The study is based on the reading and interpretation on the annual rings in wood samples. Preserved in water or waterlogged ground, from which air is excluded, the yearly growth rings are still visible, thus making research by this method possible. These rings record the climate fluctuation from the birth of the tree till the year it was felled. The last ring represents the year the tree was felled. The more favorable the weather was, the wider the ring is. Also, by comparing and overlapping the curve of the rings of older or younger trees, specialists can study the environment of hundreds or even thousands of year. This provides insight into the understanding of entire prehistoric villages, construction techniques as well as spatial development.
One last thing I’d like to mention to you is that it’s rather difficult to visit the pile dwelling sites considering they are often under water or covered with sand and silt. If they are excavated and exhibited without special care, they are likely to be destroyed. Unlike the burial sites or ritual sites, pile dwellings concern organic materials and therefore require visitors to have a vivid imagination evidenced by the remains or preserved objects. Again, as I said at the beginning, Laténium provides you with a great opportunity to explore these fragile, not easily accessible yet of indispensable cultural value sites with the help of modern technology.
Maybe my this post is a bit too long but there’s really much to see and much to know. If you are fascinated by our own history and by our ancestors, I strongly recommend this museum to you.
This post is one of the serial posts about the 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Switzerland. If you are interested please take a look at the posts below and experience the cultural and natural richness of this wonderful country.
- Abbey of St Gall
- Benedictine Convent of St John at Müstair
- Old City of Berne
- Three Castles, Defensive Wall and Ramparts of the Market-Town of Bellinzona
- Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch
- Monte San Giorgio
- Lavaux, Vineyard Terraces
- Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes
- Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona
- La Chaux-de-Fonds / Le Locle, Watchmaking Town Planning
- Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps
- The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement