The Pile Dwellings of the Alps

The prehistoric pile dwellings (palafitte in Italian) of the Alps are a series of 111 archaeological sites identified within the European Alps Of the 111 sites, 19 lie within Italy, located in five different regions: Lombardy (ten), Veneto (four), Piedmont (two), Friuli Venezia Giulia (one), and Trentino Alto Adige (two).

The settlements are always situated in the immediate vicinity of lakes or rather humid environments characterized by a great abundance of water (in Italy, such localities include, above all, those closet in proximity to Lakes Garda and Varese).

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. Meanwhile, 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 rather exceptional towns also means an opportunity to take the plunge into prehistoric culture, beginning with the gracious Isolino Virginia in Biandronno, a small island in the middle of Lago di Varese. Other archaeological zones to visit are located in Polcenigo, Desenzano del Garda, Manerba del Garda, Peschiera del Garda, Muscoline, Piadena, Cavriana, Monzanbano, Biandronno, Bodio Lomnago, Cadrezzate, Azeglio e Viverone, Arona, Ledro, Fiavè, Peschiera del Garda, Cerea, and Arquà Petrarca, near Laghetto della Costa.

Museo delle Palafitte - Lake Ledro

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. 

Particularly, the Italian zone of the archaeological finds testify to the prehistoric pile dwelling communities that existed here from 5,000 to 500 B.C. Not only, but the dwellings demonstrate the utilization of land and marine resources, quite representative of the period, comprised of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages of Europe.

Of course, the singularly intriguing aspect of the pile dwellings are the piles themselves: 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, of dry land. 

The pile dwellings convey an accurate and detailed image of the world of Europe’s first agricultural communities – they are living photographs of quotidian life, narrating the farming and livestock breeding carried out by primitive man, even going so far as to provide information regarding his technological innovations.

Museo delle Palafitte - Lake Ledro

The pile dwelling villages of the Alps present structural typologies that, even if identifiable according to a unitary model, vary for their structural positioning, as well as for construction techniques that, in their own turn, vary depending on territorial, climatic and population traits. 

Among the most noted dwellings are the su bonifica or Bonifica realized along small stretches or flows 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 archeological 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.