Bronze Age pastures, climate change and environmental archives

Interdisciplinary research on the Dachstein plateau

Study area (© DAI/RomanScholz)

In the interdisciplinary project »Alpine Interdependencies«, researchers from the OeAI and the Romano-Germanic Commission of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut are exploring the beginnings of high pasture use on the Dachstein plateau and the effects of climate change on prehistoric alpine societies.

The Dachstein massif is not only a space of special and fragile beauty, but also represents a cultural landscape that has developed over thousands of years. Humans and ecosystems have been in close and diverse interaction here for a long time.

Use of natural meadows

Over the past decades, more than 30 sites with hut remains or cultural layers dating to the Bronze Age have been discovered and documented by the Verein für Alpine Forschung rock art and settlement in the Alps – Austria (ANISA). This demonstrates that the natrual meadows of the Dachstein plateau – natural tree-free grasslands in the karst hollows of the plateau – were perceived as an important resource in Bronze Age landscape use.

New research on the Grafenbergalm

This finding gives rise to numerous new questions: When did the use of high pasture begin, in the Bronze Age or earlier? How intensively was high pasture used on the plateau in the Bronze Age and what influence did this have on the formation of the landscape we know today? Did the use of the land stop in the Early Iron Age and were climatic changes decisive for this? When was use resumed? How do prehistoric and Roman and later human-environment interactions differ?

These questions can be ideally investigated in the small region of the Grafenbergalm. There are several already known sites dating to the Bronze Age and the Roman Imperial Period. The large-scale alpine pasture area has many suspected sites that have not yet been investigated in detail. In addition, important environmental archives such as lakes and bogs can be found on the Grafenbergalm and in the adjacent area, which represent an important basis for research into the human influence on the Dachstein ecosystem over the last millennia.

Geophysics and soil sampling

In the current field campaign the pasture areas were investigated using geophysical methods to detect new sites. They were systematically surveyed by magnetometer and the anomalies detected in the magnetics were sampled in dense grids. In addition soil samples were taken to investigate activity zones inside the archaeological sites.  The soil samples are now being analysed in cooperation with the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut and the University of Vienna. These analyses will enable new insights into the formation processes of alpine soils and represent an important key to the reconstruction of human activities over the last millennia.

This research is also of relevance for challenges society faces in the present and the future, as it provides insights into how intensive use over thousands of years is possible without causing substantial disruption to the ecosystem. Research work conducted by the Natural History Museum Vienna around Hallstatt has already brought insight into sustainable resource management in the past, such as the practice of sustainbale forestry for more than 3,000 years despite high pressure on resources.


Project Structure

Project lead: Kerstin Hofmann (RKG-DAI), Kerstin Kowarik (OeAI-OeAW)
Geomagnetic measurement and evaluation: Roman Scholz (RGK-DAI)
Soil sampling: Valentina Laaha (RGK-DAI), Daniel Brandner (ANISA)
Evaluation of soil samples: Valentina Laaha (RGK-DAI) as part of a Master's thesis at the Institute for Prehistory and Historical Archaeology (supervisor: Michael Doneus)
Preparation alpine field campaign: Daniel Brandner (ANISA)

Funding | Support

  • Austrian Archaeological Institute at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAI-OeAW)
  • Romano-Germanic Commission of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (RGK-DAI)
  • Natural History Museum in Vienna (NHM)
  • Vereins für Alpine Forschung rock art and settlement in the Alps – Austria (ANISA)
  • University of Innsbruck

The project is also supported by the Agrargemeinschaft Grafenbergalm, the Agrargemeinschaft Weißenbach and the Österreichischen Bundesforste.