The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Lake Dwellings

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LAKE DWELLINGS, dwelling-houses of men built on piles in the water near the shore of a lake. They may be considered in two categories: (1) The prehistoric structures of Switzerland and the neighboring region; and (2) more modern structures elsewhere.

Swiss Lake Dwellings.— Villages constructed by men of the Neolithic and subsequent ages of culture (see Stone Age) in the water of the lakes of northwestern Switzerland, and in adjoining parts of France and Italy. They do not represent an epoch in itself, but only incidents of situation with reference to the social conditions of their time. The region was one of difficult mountains, and doubtless these were infested by roaming bands of savage or lawless men, putting in constant danger the lives and property of any settler desiring peace and comfort. It may well be supposed that the desire for safety was the ruling motive in constructing homes surrounded by water, where by the lifting or destruction of a bridge or causeway, or the withdrawal of boats, a village might rest in security against bandits who would not have the means of immediately attacking by water, and could not, or would not, wait to carry on a prolonged siege. Some dwellings of the same kind, however, were placed on the shore, and these would probably be abandoned at the coming of raiders. On the whole it may be concluded that these water-guarded communities represent the most advanced effort of the time to obtain a settled social state and foster industry. Nothing more is known of these villages than may be gathered from a study of their remains. They are found in all the larger lakes as well as in some small ones — perhaps 300 sites in Switzerland and many others in Italy. The first discovery was in Lake Zürich in 1854, when a season of extremely low water disclosed groups of stumps of piles at a little distance from the shore; and dredging recovered hundreds of implements of stone, bone and deer-horn, that had been lying in the mud for thousands of years. Subsequent exploration of the submerged margins of other Swiss lakes showed many more town sites, and exhumed a vast quantity of relics, in some cases only those of the Stone Age, in others metallic implements denoting occupation in the age of bronze, while a very few sites showed an intermediate condition of culture. The custom of making these lacustrine villages continued, therefore, from the time of the Neolithic people — probably from their first advent — on through the Bronze Age and into the more modern time when iron had come into use. It is surprising that it should not have been found in existence by the Greek and Roman pioneers to this region, but no written record or even tradition indicates survival to historic times. The occupation of these villages, however, was far from continuous. At Robenhausen, on the ancient Lake Pfäffikon, now a dry marsh, three Neolithic occupations appear, one on top of the other, and each was destroyed before the next began. The tops of each set of piles are from three to five feet higher than the earlier set. The number of houses in the first occupation has never been estimated; that of the second has been estimated at 30, and the third and last at 50 houses. The settlement covered nearly three acres and contained about 100,000 piles. At Morges, on Lake Geneva, again, three different stations close together evidently belong to different times. One has yielded no metal; the second a mixture of stone and the straight, flat, bronze hatchets characteristic of the beginning of the bronze period; the third only the finest of advanced bronze-work. “Here,” as T. W. Wilson remarks, “there could have been no contemporaneity — no mixture. Each must have been destroyed before the other began.” It is probable that these successive occupations represent as many catastrophes, most likely overwhelming conquests in which the places were sacked and swept away by fire. Evidence of conflagration is frequently noticed. In such a case decay and ice would gradually dispose of the piles near the surface of the water, but where it was deep, or the timbers were sunk in mud, they would be preserved. A complete dugout canoe has been found in one place. Burned towns might frequently have been rebuilt, but finally all were abandoned, and new towns arose near by in subsequent centuries, built by new folks. Some of the more recent villages were of comparatively great size. That at Morges was 1,200 feet long by 150 broad, and is estimated to have housed 1,200 inhabitants. Much study has been given to the plan and construction of these lacustrine habitations. Although in some of the little lakes foundations of bundles of withes, or of heaps of stones, were made, as in building crannogs, most villages rested on thousands of piles. The labor involved must have been prodigious, especially in the Stone Age, when trees had to be felled and cleared of limbs, and piles sharpened, with only stone hatchets and fire for tools. The necessary number of piles having been driven into the lake-bottom, their tops were cut to a general level and then floored over with planking or slabs, on which the buildings were erected. A narrow bridge, perhaps with a draw, connected the platform with the shore. What the houses and other superstructures were like is a matter of doubt. They must have been fairly substantial and tight to withstand the winter cold and mountain gales; and no doubt contained fireplaces of stones and clay for warmth and cooking purposes. It is probable that they were usually formed of reeds or slender poles covering the frame, and coated with clay, forming “wattle-and-daub” huts, as fragments of such clay walls, hardened by fire, have been found in abundance.

Other Lake-Dwellers.— Antiquarians and travelers have described similar dwellings, and even villages still in use in various parts of the world Herodotus, who visited Thrace early in the 5th century, B.C., saw the natives about Lake Prasias living in a lacustrine village precisely like those of ancient Switzerland; modern Rumelian fishermen around Lake Prasias still build and inhabit similar dwellings. The same custom is followed by tribes dwelling on marshes, lake-borders or river-courses in central Africa, the East Indies and Malaya, Australasia and in tropical America. The motives nowadays are not always, if ever, fear of enemies, but rather convenience, since such folks are usually dependent on boats for travel, or are engaged in fisheries of some sort, or find it needful to sleep above the wet jungle-soil, and out of the way of dangerous animals and annoying vermin. One of the most prominent examples is that which led European explorers to give the name Venezuela (“Little Venice”) to the northern coast of South America. Around Lake Maracaibo the Indians dwelt in the rainy season in flimsy shelters perched on piles driven in the water, the shorter ones carrying the sills and floor, and the longer ones the roof-poles. They made platforms for storing property, and little islands as refuges for their meagre livestock. But there is a well-known example nearer home. The Irish, and to a less extent the Scotch and English of old times, had lake dwellings that were made in the following way and were styled crannogs.

Crannogs.— Great quantities of small stems, sticks and the like are collected and sunk by means of stones in the lake, so as to form an island. Very often advantage is taken of the existence of an island just level with the surface of the water, which can be raised a foot or two above the surface with comparatively little labor. Sometimes a few upright piles are driven in on the top after the chief part of the island has been made in the manner described. When the island is thus raised to a sufficient height it is frequently strengthened by an enclosure of stakes driven into the bottom of the lake perpendicularly. A platform of thin stems of trees, either round or split into boards, is then made on top of the island, and this supports the structures that are built on them. The crannogs of Ireland appear to have been rather used as strongholds than as dwellings. Consult Keller, ‘Lake Dwellings of Switzerland and Other Parts of Europe’ (1878); Wood, Martin, ‘Lake Dwellings of Ireland’ (1886); Munro R., ‘Ancient Scottish Lake Dwellings’ (1882); ‘Lake Dwellings of Europe’ (1890), and general works on archæology.

Ernest Ingersoll.