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Stories from the Nature Park

Searching for traces

Treasure hunt in Zillertal

A search for traces on the Pfitscher Joch goes back 8,000 years in time. The archaeologist Walter Leitner, and Katharina Weiskopf, nature park ranger in the Zillertal Alps high mountain nature park, lead us into a fascinating world. And bring real treasures to light.

Steps in to another era. They lead us from what is now the Schlegeis reservoir, through the breathtaking scenery of the nature park and up to the Pfitscher Joch pass. Right into a long-gone age which is very difficult to investigate today. Unless you are underway with Walter Leitner. This renowned archaeologist has earned himself an international reputation, not only by virtue of his research into Ötzi, the “Glacier man”. He has carefully examined the main Alpine ridge with an explorer’s eye, on behalf of the Zillertal Alps high mountain nature park. And he has revealed some amazing things, which will really open our eyes on this hike.

Retracing the first Zillertal dwellers

“We had already assumed for a long time that the Pfitscher Joch pass was used by Stone Age hunters”, he tells us on the first few metres of our unusual hike. As he says, “almost all the passes over the main Alpine ridge were crossed over 8,000 years ago. People were always curious and naturally explored the long valleys”. Such as Zillertal – where they penetrated into the most remote corners and up to the highest peaks. Always on the search for new hunting grounds, to find enough prey to keep themselves alive during the meagre winter months.

“In this area, we also discovered beautiful
tools made of rock crystal."

Walter Leitner

The Pfitscher Joch pass is a good area for exploration as it has a large number of what experts refer to as “indicative sites”. These are places which were very probably Stone Age settlement sites, where we can still find remains today. Leitner
explains: “These places are either slightly overhanging cliffs which offer protection against the weather, or raised areas which are drier and provide a good view”. And also on the banks of glacial lakes, where Stone Age hunters lay in wait for animals of prey such as ibex or chamoise, which came to drink. Therefore, it is only logical that the probability of finding remains is highest at one of these distinctive sites.

“Here, for example!” Walter Leitner (aged 68) points to a cliff which forms a natural roof. Here, his team made a discovery only a few centimetres below the topsoil. They found a layer of charcoal and flint tools. His eyes begin to shine as he continues with his story: “In this area, we also discovered beautiful tools made of rock crystal”. Nowadays, this is regarded as a gemstone, and it was unusual even many thousands of years ago. “It was easier to make an arrowhead or a knife out of rock crystal than carving it from flintstone. The natural shape of the crystal forms blunt or sharp edges and tips”, our expert explains. Rock crystals are also much rarer than flintstones”. This means that a hunter who had arrowheads made of rock crystal stood out from the others. “We assume that this also gave him a special status in the community”, Leitner explains.

And, what’s more: these hunters also possessed an article of value, with which they could trade. Even then, trade was an important aspect of communal life. The various groups of hunters bartered with one another, and tools were traded from place to place over hundreds of kilometres. Cutting edges made from this precious material have been found at Lake Garda and, vice versa, arrowheads made from high-quality flint of the type indigenous to the Northern Calcareous Alps and the Bavarian region have been found on the Pfitscher Joch. The discoveries made on the Pfitscher Joch pass have taught us more about the way of life of the first Zillertal dwellers and their hunting routes. During the Stone Age, the hiking track we followed today was a particularly important connecting route between North and South. “It was shorter than other routes”, our guide explains. And this means that, even almost 8,000 years ago, Zillertal was a very special valley for Alpine settlers. Not only for people today, who love to go hiking in this magnificent landscape. On a hike to the Pfitscher Joch pass, for example.

Image: Elias Holzknecht and A. Blaickner and text: Johannes Stühlinger
Zillertal magazine Summer 2019


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