Alpine chalets. Half-timbered wood-and-stucco houses. Long house-and-barn combos brimming with flower boxes. I had seen hundreds of these houses in southern Germany and Switzerland, in the Alpine landscape surrounding Lake Constance.
Houses perched above water, on stilts? Impossible!
A visit to the Pile Dwelling (Pfahlbau) Museum in Unteruhldingen, Germany, convinced me of just how wrong I was. Unearthed remains on Lake Constance (Bodensee in German) reveal that this housing style was commonplace here in prehistoric times.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You want to visit as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
- You’re looking for another worthwhile stop on Lake Constance.
- A great stop for those who love history and open air museums.
The Pile Dwellings’s open air museum recreates these 6,000-year-old coastal houses whose remnants have garnered recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Prehistoric Flood Prevention
Peppered along the shores of Europe’s Alpine lakes, under water and buried in swamp mud, lie the telltale signs of prehistoric pile dwellings. These stilt houses have been unearthed in modern-day Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France. Researchers have found traces of similar pile dwellings across the continent, in Austria, Spain, Lithuania and Latvia.
Exhibits in the Pile Dwelling Museum detail a coastal-dwelling people who found themselves subjected to huge fluctuations in lake levels thanks to the seasonal runoff of melting Alpine snow and glaciers. Multimedia displays and encased artifacts reveal that beginning in the Stone Age, around 4000 BC, and continuing until around 800 BC prehistoric Europeans made the best of an unpredictable situation by perching their houses on stilts pounded into the shallow waters and marshes around Lake Constance.
The multimedia displays help explain building techniques used by these ancient peoples. But the real draw of the Pile Dwelling Museum is outside, on the water.
Open-Air Pile Dwellings
A pleasant boardwalk leads me from the museum displays to the great outdoors, across Lake Constance’s sunny northern shore to a cluster of a dozen recreated pile houses. Wooden piles, floor boards and walls are tied together with rope. The dwellings’ roofs are constructed of dried grasses, reeds, bark and wooden shingles.
It was in 1922 that Lake Constance’s first reconstructed pile dwelling went up. Sitting a foot or two above the surface of the water, the dwellings vary somewhat in design and construction based upon the era they represent. Stone Age dwellings resemble simple A-frame houses; Bronze Age houses have a Nordic look to them, with pointy hook-shaped pieces extending above the roof peaks at both ends of each house. Closer to shore are reconstructed Stone and Bronze Age villages.
Researchers make every effort to build houses precisely as they may have looked millennia ago. But, of course, there’s no way to know precisely how a building constructed of biodegradable materials might have looked millennia ago. Many of these houses’ features are based upon the discoveries of house fragments found preserved in the water and mud. Fragments but, alas, no complete houses.
If there is any disappointment at this UNESCO site, this uncertainty might be it. That and the authenticity itself. The real gems here—the prehistoric bits that UNESCO granted status—still lie underwater and buried in muck, not above water where modern-day tourists can poke their heads in.
Still, the reconstructed pile dwelling in Unteruhldingen are based on almost a century of careful research. And the learning opportunity here is well worth worth a stop. It’s a museum that sheds light on an ancient culture virtually unknown to us these 6,000 years later.