Los proyectos de arqueología subacuática a los que hemos acudido en Mediterráneo Antiguo han sido todos marítimos, pero las aguas internas también deparan una gran cantidad de vestigios arqueológicos. El lago Viverone, en la región de Piamonte, Italia, cubre un interesante yacimiento de la Edad del Bronce, datado entre los siglos XVI y XIV a.C. Las investigaciones que se han llevado a cabo allí nos hablan de una comunidad asentada en palafitos, cuyos vestigios materiales han llegado hasta nuestros días. Mediterráneo Antiguo ha querido conocer este interesante proyecto de la mano de su director, el profesor Francesco Menotti, de la Universidad de Bradford (en inglés).

Reconstrucción de un Palafito. Caponigro. Museo di Villa Mirabello. Foto: Wikimedia

Question – How was the archaeological site of Viverone discovered and when?
Answer – The site was discovered by Guido Giolitto, an amateur diver with a passion for archaeology, in 1971. With the help of a few volunteers, Giolitto randomly collected a number of artefacts still visible on the bottom of the lake’s shallow waters near the shore.

Question – Please, describe briefly the main archaeological remains so far known at Viverone.
Answer – Although without a proper stratigraphic context, Giolitto managed to collect quite a large number of objects, which are now either stored or displayed at the local museums. The Viverone pile-dwelling assemblage consists of a number of complete/semi complete ceramic vessels, pot sherds, loom weights, spindle whorls, and quite a few bronze artefacts including axes, daggers, sickles, fishing hooks, spearheads, swords, arrowheads, razors, pins, a series of decorative objects (spirals, pendants, etc.), and even a horse bit mouthpiece. Typological analyses on the material culture place its chronology between the 16th and the 14th century BC, which is also confirmed by 14C and dendrochronology dates carried out on wooden piles. The archaeological assemblage also contains more recent (Late Bronze Age) objects, but absolute date of the settlements occupation in that period are, alas, still not available. An interesting aspect of the Viverone bronze objects is that they are typologically linked more to the northern slopes of the Alpine region than to the south, or indeed to the entire Italian peninsula. Finally, the assemblage includes also organic remains in the form of animal bones, spanning from wild animals (deer, wild boar, etc.) to domestic ones (horse, cattle, goat, etc.).

Emplazamiento del yacimiento. Foto: Ben Jennings

Question – Which is the purpose of your investigations there?
Answer – As briefly mentioned above, after the discovery, Giolitto and a few volunteers collected the visible artefacts randomly, and donated them to the local museums, but it was not until 1977 that proper investigations, led by the Soprintendenza del Piemonte under the direction of Luigi Fozzati, started. The investigations continued, on and off, until 1992, and during this period Fozzati managed to record all the visible wooden piles (over 4000) upon which the entire settlement was originally built. Despite this major achievement, the site was never excavated; nor were any standard scientific analyses (dendrochronology, palaeoenvironmental reconstructions, isotope analyses on metal objects, etc.) ever carried out. Research resumed almost 20 years later when, in connection to my Swiss National Foundation project, dendrochronological analyses were done on a number of piles to confirm/improve the occupational chronology of the settlement. The site was again ‘forgotten’ until it became part of the UNESCO World Heritage in 2011. It has only been recently though, thanks to our new project ‘the lake-dwelling of Viverone: a gateway to northern Europe’ kindly sponsored by the National Geographic Society, that the site’s full potential has finally been recognised. As a result, we have now obtained the permission to excavate it partially, and carry out a number of scientific analyses which will shed crucial light on the settlement’s chronology, occupational patterns, the surrounding natural environment, economy, and short/long-distance social interaction. The main purpose of this project is to place the settlement into a precise spatial/temporal context in order to identify the role it played in the formation/development/interaction of Bronze Age societies in central Europe, with a special emphasis placed upon the Circum-Alpine region.

Question – Could you explain to us what kind of techniques will your team use in the campaign?
Answer – The exceptional level of preservation of natural and archaeological remains allows us to carry out a number of scientific analyses. Using a series of soil samples (coring and excavation samples) collected within the settlements and surroundings, a team of geomorphologists, archaeobotanists and palynologists will attempt to reconstruct the on- and off-site environment at the time the settlement was occupied in order to see whether it was built on water or on land, and whether possible climate change influenced the occupation/abandonment. The dendrochronologists will work on the numerous wooden piles and lying structures to refine the chronological development of the lacustrine village, as well as its internal layout and planimetry. A synergetic effort between the two teams will also shed light on the development and management of surrounding forested areas. A third team of archaeometallurgists will do isotope analyses on the available bronze artefacts in order to identify the source of row material (especially copper ores). Did the Viverone lake-dwellers use row material from within the Alpine region, and alloyed their own bronze; or did they use mainly recycled objects to produce their own artefacts? An important role in this project will also be that of the professional archaeology divers who will excavate part of the submerged settlement. The excavation (the first ever carried out on the site since its discovery) will not only be crucial to establish a proper stratigraphy in relation to the occupational phases, but it will be vital to evaluate the state of preservation of this important UNESCO site.

Question – Which are the main advantages and disadvantages of working on a submerged archaeological site?
Answer – The main advantage is that the site is constantly in anaerobic conditions (absence of oxygen), which drastically reduces the deterioration of the archaeological remains especially those made of organic materials. Moreover, the site is less directly disturbed by human agencies, hence accentuating the chances of preservation. Natural environmental conditions however do play an important role, and can influence the submerged site. For instance, lake-level fluctuations caused by seasonal/long-term climate change may start erosion processes that will eventually expose and jeopardise the site. Another advantage is noticed during the excavation. Since the site is constantly underwater, once wooden structures are exposed, there is no rush to protect them from drying and warping. As far as the excavation of a submerged site is concerned, the disadvantages are, alas, more numerous than the advantages. It is much more time-consuming, difficult, professional archaeology divers are required, and, as result, excavation costs are significantly higher in comparison to a standard on-land excavation. Artefact preservation in post-excavation contexts is also very expensive especially regarding delicate organic materials. All in all however, the reward that wetland/underwater sites offer concerning the availability of data for scientific analyses and the reliability of the final results is incredible, and, despite the above-mentioned disadvantages, working on such sites is definitely worth it.


Mario Agudo Villanueva