Walking through history: archaeology on the streets of Zürich

Fraumünster, St. Peters and the Grossmünster on either side of the River Limmat
Fraumünster, St. Peters and the Grossmünster on either side of the River Limmat

My final month of Global Archaeology is being spent in Zürich in the northern, German speaking part of Switzerland. This isn’t the first time I’ve visited the city but I never cease to be amazed by the medieval buildings in the Altstadt (Old Town). It is almost as if you’ve stepped back in time! The exact development of the name Zürich is not certain but archaeologists have discovered that its Roman name Turicum evolved into the Gallo-Roman name Turigus by 807 AD. Zürich has been in use from around the 10th century AD, a name that likely developed from the earlier Germanic Ziurichi that was used as early as the 6th century AD.

Grossmünster from St. Peter's
Grossmünster from St. Peter’s

Although there is evidence for human activity in the lowlands of the Swiss Alps during the Upper Paleolithic, the settlement of the area that is now Zürich began in the Neolithic. Around the Zürichsee there are eleven examples of the famous UNESCO World Heritage Neolithic and Bronze Age European pile built dwelling sites. These settlements were situated on the marshy lakeshore and built on piles and stilts to protect them from occasional flooding. Since prehistoric times the Zürichsee has grown in size, submerging these settlements 4-7m below the lake surface. One of the most famous is the Alpenquai site where archaeological investigations uncovered a settlement mainly occupied from 1050 BC to 800 BC, but also exhibiting evidence from the transition from Bronze to Iron Age. In the late 19th century, a large depot of fused Celtic coins (the so-called Potin lumps) was found near the former lakeshore. The coins are of Eastern Gaulish and of the Zürich type associated with the local Helvetii. These coins dating to around 100 BC indicate that the Celtic settlement was very significant in the region.

Lindenhof Hill rising above the River Limmat
Lindenhof Hill rising above the River Limmat

Although you can’t visit the UNESCO pile built dwellings (unless you dive down to them!) Zürich’s long history can be experienced at the Lindenhof Hill on the west bank of the River Limmat. Tourists and locals alike visit this public park that has fantastic views over the Altstadt and the river. What many don’t realise is that beneath their feet are the remains of prehistoric, Roman and medieval settlements that designate this high spot in the city as a Class A object in the Swiss inventory of cultural property of national and regional significance. Iron Age La Tène cultural objects have been found in the area of the Celtic oppidium on Lindenhof. But the hill was first fortified as a citadel by the Romans during the reign of Augustus, and later again by emperor Valentinian I (364-375AD) with 2m thick walls and 10 towers to defend the settlement against the Alamanni who occupied territory to the north. Several stone buildings of Roman era on the Lindenhof Hill and can be viewed at the Lindenhof-Keller restaurant archaeological display. The Roman Zürich, known as Turicum, was founded in 15 BC within the Roman provinces Raetia and Germania Superior and the city has been continuously occupied ever since.

Grossmünster and the River Limmat from the Lindenhof Hill
Grossmünster and the River Limmat from the Lindenhof Hill

The remains of the Roman citadel on the Lindenhof Hill were integrated into the Gallo-Roman settlement in the 5th–7th century – it is probable that the citadel wall evolved into the retaining wall of this settlement. In the 9th century a Carolingian castle was built by Louis the German, the grandson of Charlemagne, on the site of the ruined Roman citadel. At that time, what we now know as the city of Zürich was comprised of a royal house and castle on the Lindenhof with tenant buildings surrounding it, the Grossmünster and Fraumünster monasteries on either side of the Limmat River and a community of free men on the Zürichberg – a high hill that now overlooks the zoo in the east of the city. In the early medieval period a Kaiserpfalz, consisting of a long building with a chapel, was built on the eastern side of the still fortified Lindenhof. The Holy Roman Emperor used this imperial palace as one of his secondary seats of power.

Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten - refurbished 14th century guild house
Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten – refurbished 14th century guild house

In the 12th century Zürich gained the status of imperial immediacy under German feudal law – granting the city freedom from the control of any local élite and instead to be under the direct authority of the Holy Roman Emperor. This allowed the city to collect its own taxes and tolls, hold a market, mint coins and conduct legal proceedings. The next step in the city’s development happened in 1336 AD when a revolution under the leadership of Rudolf Brun, the Zünfte or Guild Revolution, led to the establishment of a new city constitution. The revolution also decreased (but not completely removed) the power of the two monasteries in the city, the Grossmünster and the Fraumünster. After the revolution Zürich’s city council was composed of 26 members: 13 of the Gesellschaft zur Constaffel (nobility) and 13 Guild Masters. The city’s 13 medieval guilds were:

  1. Zunft zur Saffran: merchants of textiles and spices
  2. Zunft zur Meisen: innkeepers, saddle makers and painters
  3. Zunft zur Schmiden: blacksmiths, silver- and gold-smiths, clockmakers and physicians
  4. Zunft zur Weggen: bakers and millers
  5. Zunft zur Gerwe: tanners
  6. Zunft zur Schuhmachern: shoemakers
  7. Zunft zum Widder: butchers and cattle merchants
  8. Zunft zur Zimmerleuten: carpenters, builders, and wainmakers
  9. Zunft zur Schneidern: tailors
  10. Zunft zur Schiffleuten: fishermen and boatmen
  11. Zunft zum Kämbel: food dealers, wine merchants
  12. Zunft der Leinenweber: linen weavers
  13. Zunft der Wollweber: wool weavers
Ulrich Zwingli monument
Ulrich Zwingli monument

One of the most famous events Zürich’s history was during Europe’s Protestant Reformation when it was a centre of change under the leadership of (Ulrich) Huldrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531 AD). He was a scholar and pastor of the Grossmünster in Zürich where he preached his ideas concerning the reforming of Catholicism and through his doctrine caused division between the (then) thirteen cantons of Switzerland. The Reformation completely removed the power of the Grossmünster and Fraumünster monasteries in the running of the city, changed the course of Zürich’s history and made it the modern/medieval city it is today. It is wonderful to walk through the streets on my way to the Universität Zürich and see the evidence of this history all around me.

The Alps above the Zürichsee
The Alps above the Zürichsee