The Pile Dwellings of the Alps
The prehistoric pile dwellings of the Alps – or palafitte in Italian – are a series of 111 archaeological sites identified within six countries around the Alps. These settlements, dispersed throughout Italy and neighboring countries, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011.
The sites are composed of the remains of prehistoric pile-dwelling settlements dating from 5000 to 500 BC which are situated underwater, on lake shores, along rivers or in wetland, offering superb conservation conditions for organic remains such as wood, textiles and plant remains.
Due to the exceptional wealth of findings, the pile dwellings give precise and detailed perception of the world of the early farmers in Europe, giving information on the everyday life, agriculture, hunting and technical innovations. Because the remains of wooden architectural elements grant the possibility of exact dating, the understanding of entire villages and their detailed spatial development over long periods can be followed through the pile-dwelling sites, giving the best known archaeological sources for prehistoric dwellings.
Of the 111 sites, 19 lie within Italy, located in five different regions: Lombardy, Veneto, Piedmont, Friuli Venezia Giulia and Trentino Alto Adige. The settlements are always situated in the immediate vicinity of lakes or humid environments characterized by a great abundance of water.
In Lombardy – more precisely on Lake Varese – archaeologists have identified the most ancient pile-dwelling structures, dating all the way back to the early Neolithic era. The largest concentration of pile dwellings, concerning more than 30 different dwelling complexes, have been found in the Lake Garda area, along its banks and in the nearby Moraine glacially-formed basins. Small pile dwellings have also been discovered in Trentino Alto Adige’s Alpine lakes and in the hollows of Piedmont.
It is evident that visiting many of Italy’s exceptional towns also means an opportunity to delve into prehistoric culture. These settlements were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List for constituting an exceptionally-preserved group of rich archaeological sites, one of the most important sources for the study of the region’s first agrarian societies.
The Italian zone of the archaeological finds testify to the prehistoric pile dwelling communities that existed here from 5,000 to 500 B.C. The dwellings demonstrate the utilization of land and marine resources, quite representative of the period, comprised of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages of Europe.
The piles themselves are huts of straw, wood, cane and other materials built into a wooden platform supported by wooden stilts that run to the bottom of the beds of rivers, lakes, lagoons, swap and, sometimes, dry land. The pile dwellings convey an accurate and detailed image of the world of Italy’s first agricultural communities – they are living photographs of ancient life, narrating the farming and livestock breeding carried out by primitive man, even going so far as to provide information regarding technological innovations.
The pile dwelling villages of the Alps present structural typologies that, even if identifiable according to a basic model, vary for their structural positioning, as well as for construction techniques that differ depending on territorial, climatic and population traits.
Among the most noted dwellings are the su bonifica or Bonifica that are commonly found along small stretches of water and supported by stilts, and the aerial pile dwellings, erected so as to seem suspended over the water’s surface.
Without a doubt, beyond these magnificent and evocative structures, the archaeological discoveries made at all the sites, including fragments of vessels, tools for cutting, carving and chiseling, and other utensils have helped to document the pile dwellers’ daily activities and give an accurate picture of prehistoric life in Italy.