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Whose Archaeological Site Is It? The public's involvement in the caretaking and opening of archaeological sites in Switzerland

Cynthia Dunning Thierstein

Cite this as: Dunning Thierstein, C. 2020 Whose Archaeological Site Is It? The public's involvement in the caretaking and opening of archaeological sites in Switzerland, Internet Archaeology 54.

1. Introduction

Among the numerous public archaeological sites and monuments found in Switzerland, more than a thousand are open to visitors. For those under the care of the State, which would in our country correspond to the different cantons, the cantonal archaeological services are responsible for their conservation, maintenance and presentation to the public. These activities require an enormous amount of time, money and personnel. This is where non-governmental non-profit organisations in the form of mostly community-led local associations can be very useful.

2. What is an Association? What is its Importance in Switzerland?

An association is the descendant of the civil societies that developed in parallel with academies during the 18th and 19th centuries. The characteristics of an association are voluntary participation, equal rights for all members voting in general assembly, and a simple organisation framework based on statutes that define the modus vivendi, including the common objective(s), resources and the structures. It is the most democratic legal form of collaborative participation since all decisions are taken at a general assembly.

In Switzerland, the basis of the association is its very simple juridical form which is inscribed in the Swiss Civil Code adopted on 10 December 1907 (chapter 2, articles 60-79). Today there are more than 100,000 associations or societies for a total of 8.42 million inhabitants, and the Swiss Federal Office of Statistics calculated that in 2016, 42.3% of the population actively participated in activities organised by associations. We must not forget those members (25.8%) whose support is limited to their contributions. However, the number of associations involved in the protection and enhancement of archaeological heritage is not known. We estimate that there are between 300 and 600 for the country as a whole (There is no exhaustive list of associations active in the field of archaeological heritage, as there is no obligation to register, but the following websites mention the most active associations: Swiss Archaeology; Burgenvereine der Schweiz; Le portail suisse pour les sciences historiques.

The enthusiasm for associations is based on the many advantages they offer. Members value commitment to a cause by sharing common values and decision-making in a democratic and open manner. The association occupies a legal space that is independent of the authorities and can, as a non-profit organisation, obtain funding (donations or grants) generally not accessible to either private or public institutions. It is also a place for strong socialisation and networking around a given objective or theme that can have broader consequences, for example in local or regional politics. However, associations present several challenges. The first is based on a persistent myth that the amateur or active volunteer in an association has less knowledge and skills than the professional acting on behalf of official institutions. This sometimes results in difficult collaboration, which must be compensated for by better communication. A second challenge concerns the long-term existence of associations. Indeed, once their objectives have been achieved, continuity is not ensured. The socialisation offered by the regular meetings as part of the associative life undergoes a generational change: members are now ageing and young people seem to prefer other forms of meetings and civic actions.

Table 1: Advantages and disadvantages of associations for archaeological heritage
Advantages Disadvantages
Commitment until the objectives are achieved – then it tends to disappear No secured finance other than membership fees, which are usually insufficient to sustain the association, but there are other financing possibilities
Common values among all participants Myth that being amateurs equals incapacity/lack of knowledge, but working processes show that the amateurs are usually professionals in other fields that may be needed for conservation and presentation projects
Democratic decisions as long as they correspond to the preservation of the site and its presentation as seen by the authorities Difficult collaboration between professionals and non-professional volunteers
Occupation of roles that are not taken account of by the authorities such as the presentation and publication of archaeological sites No official control of finances (for the non-inscribed smaller associations)
Non-profit. Volunteer working combined with financing of the work usually based on donations and subventions, thus escaping budgetary needs Continuity is difficult to ensure (generation change). Two elements stand out: individualism and new methods of communication (social media)
Simple organisational form escapes formal constructs. It is based on local networks allowing quick action Democratic decisions may also have negative consequences when knowledge is inadequate and decisions have to be taken too quickly
Have possibilities to ensure financing (donations and subventions) that private entities or institutions do not have
Instrument of socialisation: People get together to attain a common goal, get to know each other, organise common activities
Networking between like-minded people (amateurs and professionals get together, local companies are used to do the work, communities come together)
Management learning: associations offer perfect examples to learn how to build concepts and manage them to attain the given goal

3. A Short History of Associations for Archaeological Heritage in Switzerland

The Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Deutsche Sprache in Basel, founded in 1742, was the first association to support local historical research in Switzerland. The aim was to promote the archaeology of Augusta Raurica, considered since the 15th century to be a place revealing ancient treasures (Kamber 2008). It is one of the 150 'sociétés savantes' known in Switzerland during the 17th and 18th centuries, which flourished at the same time as scientific academies elsewhere in Europe.

With the growth of nationalism at the beginning of the 19th century, the number of societies increased rapidly, leading to a diversification of missions. Societies and associations are created for all kinds of reasons, mainly in Protestant, radical-liberal and urban circles. It is also then that this form of organisation, based on active participation, begins to take on a political role in all possible domains from economy to social themes. By the end of the 19th century, there were more than 30,000 associations in Switzerland!

Aventicum, an archaeological site known since the 16th century, saw the creation of the Vespasian Circle in 1824, bringing together lovers of Roman antiquities and allowing the establishment of the first municipal museum called the Musée du Cercle Vespasien. The Circle was dissolved in 1838 when the collections became the property of the State of Vaud. Despite the management by the Cantonal Museum of Antiquities in Lausanne, excavations intensified and archaeological objects were scattered. The citizens of Avenches asked the canton for funds for systematic research and, seeing that they did not obtain any agreement, decided in 1885 to create Pro Aventico, an association intended to arouse public interest and thus save the remains of the capital of Roman Helvetia.

Such cases are not unique: Antiquarian Societies (Historical Societies) were established in Zurich (Antiquarische Gesellschaft zu Zürich, 1832) where the results of research into pile dwellings in Switzerland were first presented; in Geneva (Société d'histoire et d'archéologie de Genève, 1838); in Fribourg (Société d'histoire de Fribourg, 1840); in Basel (Gesellschaft für vaterländische Altertümer, 1841/82); in Bern (Historischer Verein, 1846); and in Neuchâtel (Société d'histoire et d'archéologie du canton de Neuchâtel, 1864). All have a common goal: to preserve and study the remains of the human past. These associations also contributed to the founding of cantonal history museums, such as those in Bern or Neuchâtel, which are now recognised for their important regional collections. They played an equally important role in research before the creation of archaeological institutes in universities during the 20th century by publishing maps, inventories, reports and monographs on archaeological discoveries and sites across the country.

With the drafting of the Swiss Civil Code in 1907, the role of these societies and associations changed radically. The cantons became responsible for the management of Swiss archaeological heritage and owners of all movable archaeological property. Societies, as they existed in the 19th century, were forced to redefine their objectives or to disappear. Most associations refocused on research of historical themes and their presentation to the public through conferences, excursions and publications. This led to a schism. The subject of archaeology, for which the State, in the form of the cantons, was from then on responsible, was more or less abandoned by these older societies. It was, therefore, at the beginning of the 20th century that new societies and circles devoted specifically to archaeology appeared. The Swiss Society for Prehistory was founded in 1907. It is the first national association to deal solely with archaeology (today Swiss Archaeology/Archaeologie Schweiz/Archéologie Suisse). The Swiss Castle Association was created in 1927 to promote medieval culture and research on castles, churches and medieval dwellings throughout Switzerland. The protection of built heritage, vernacular or sacred, is the objective of Schweizer Heimatschutz/Patrimoine Suisse, which dates from 1905. In addition to these sacred behemoths, we must not forget the many small associations that were designed to support particular causes and sites, generated by municipalities or individuals to cover needs that cantonal or communal authorities cannot meet alone.

4. Different Forms of Associations Active in the Field of Archaeological Heritage

We can distinguish between different types of societies and associations active in the field of archaeology in Switzerland. First, let us consider the national associations and societies, such as Swiss Archaeology (Figure 1), the Swiss Castle Association, the Swiss Society for the Study of the Ancient Near East, the Swiss Association for the Study of Antiquity or the Swiss Numismatic Society. They are members of the Swiss Academy of Human and Social Sciences, itself an umbrella association bringing together some 60 learned societies in the field of human and social sciences in Switzerland. Their objectives are to raise awareness of the fields of history they represent and to support research and conservation of archaeological remains. Schweizer Heimatschutz/Patrimoine Suisse is itself an umbrella association with 25 cantonal sections. It is closely related to Europa Nostra on an international scale. These associations, which are registered in the commercial register and have a national and long-standing representation, generally also have the right of appeal at national level under the Federal Act on the Protection of Nature and Landscape (PDF). Therefore, they are usually very active politically for the protection of heritage and the development of a sustainable legislation. Their organisation is generally well developed and often includes a permanent professional secretariat.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Screenshot of the homepage of Swiss Archaeology © Swiss Archaeology

The second group includes professional associations or specialised working groups, such as the Working Group for Prehistoric Research in Switzerland (GPS), the Association for Roman Archaeology in Switzerland (ARS), the Swiss Group for the Study of Monetary Findings (GSETM), the Swiss Association for Classical Archaeology (ASAC), the Swiss Working Group for Medieval and Modern Archaeology (SAM), the Prospecting Working Group (GTP), the Swiss Working Group on Historical Anthropology (AGHAS) or ArchaeoTourism. To this group, we can also add the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Archaeologists (CSAC) and the Swiss Association of Technical Personnel for Archaeological Excavations (ASTFA). These associations represent professionals or specialists working in different archaeological fields. Their objectives are to promote the exchange of information, foster contacts between researchers and be a specific interlocutor for policy makers and authorities.

A third set of associations are directly linked to the protection of archaeological sites (Pro Fenis Hasenburg, Pro Petinesca, Verein Weissenburgbad, to mention only a few in the canton of Berne), the promotion of museums (Pro Aventico, Freunde Augusta Raurica, etc.), or the conservation of archaeological or historical landscapes (e.g. Historische Vereinigung Seetal und Umgebung, Associazione Archeologica Ticinese, Tatort Vergangenheit). Their objectives are directly focused on the preservation of the local archaeological heritage. They facilitate activities related to the conservation, presentation and development of sites or museums. One of their main tasks is to find additional funding for specific projects related to the sites for which they are responsible. These associations also form the link between cantonal institutions and municipalities, and even citizens at the local level. The organisation of these associations is often based on volunteering and their success depends on the network that the members have developed.

We should also mention the archaeological circles that can be found in all the major cities and which are often linked to university institutions (Bernese Circle for Prehistory and Archaeology; Zürich Circle for Prehistory and Archaeology; Basel Circle for Prehistory and Archaeology; etc.). Their specialty is to present the results of local archaeological research or projects that may be of interest to their members through conferences and excursions. Finally, there are also groups and circles included in larger associations such as the Archaeology Group of the Network Lake of Biel or the Archaeology Circle integrated into the Jura Emulation Society. They fulfil a role similar to that of the academic archaeological circles cited above.

5. The Importance and Challenges of Associations in the Swiss Archaeological Landscape

The association is a legacy of the societies as they developed after the 19th century. Thanks to their diversity, archaeological associations play a fundamental role at different levels. At the national level, they are political partners and can influence decision making with both the Confederation and the cantons. In the regions, they federate different sites and act as a link between the cantonal authorities, municipalities and the interested citizen. Targeted associations make it possible to defend the rights of specialists and to aid communication between colleagues. In this way, new knowledge and professional networks are built and transmitted. Societies open to all interested persons promote cultural sharing and encourage voluntary work around clear objectives related to heritage conservation and promotion.

In all cases, what attracts the associative member is the possibility of participating collectively and democratically in decisions related to the resolution of challenges and the organisation of activities related to the goals of the association, which are devoted to sites and subjects the population feels closely attached to. In addition, associations, by virtue of their legal form, offer advantages, particularly in terms of financing. If the association has to set up expensive projects, it has easier access to funding through foundations and public funds, which often remain inaccessible to private and public institutions. In this way, it has acquired a privileged position between economic partners and government institutions. We can therefore affirm that archaeological associations play an important role, especially for the authorities, as they constitute an essential link between economic and political partners as well as with the local population, thus allowing archaeology to have a more pronounced social legitimacy.

But we must not be misled by these benefits. There are also major challenges to be met. In the 1980s, more than half of the Swiss population was a member of at least one association (see The figures have changed little since then (see above). However, there is a real transformation in the member demographic. With the emergence of subjectivist modernism, which emphasises a liberated individualism, associations are attracting fewer and fewer young generations. The majority of the members are elderly people, often with good professional networks, but who rarely develop programmes to recruit young people. Renewal is difficult to achieve. However, it is certainly not because of a lack of interest, as we have seen in several studies on public archaeology, particularly those seeking to understand the importance of archaeology for future generations. Here we can mention a series of 'salons archéologiques', which have been initiated throughout the different regions of Switzerland to find out more about what the public understands about archaeology and its future (see Our younger peers seem to prefer other forms of community work related to their liberated individualism, expressed through the difficulty of long-term commitment. This greatly affects the traditional working methods of associations as we know them today. Also, other forms of communication, such as social media, which require less presence as a group (at least physically) are favoured. Associations must, therefore, adapt to new modes of communication and the obvious individualism of young people.

The members of archaeological associations, as for the majority of associations, are generally Swiss with a higher level of education (see Federal Statistics Bureau). Yet, this is not representative of the current demographic complexity of the country. If we want to engage citizens in heritage and make it accessible to different communities, it is essential to find activities and topics that can speak to this audience that has become so diverse over the past forty decades. Also, volunteering, if necessary for community life, will have to evolve by adapting to these new criteria.

The majority of archaeological associations are small and often dedicated to a specific site or theme, and they mainly focus on this work. Once the goal has been achieved, interest declines and long-term continuity, often necessary to ensure the conservation of the site, is threatened. It is therefore important that they develop more networking processes and opportunities for exchanging information between associations with common objectives, in order to have a chance of sustainability.

6. Examples of Good Practice of Archaeological Associations

To illustrate the different approaches associations have towards the management of sites and museums, several examples are presented that may be considered as examples of good practice.

6.1 Pro Aventico

Pro Aventico is one of the oldest and most active associations in western Switzerland. It is directly linked to the museum and site of national importance of Aventicum (Avenches, canton of Vaud), capital of Roman Helvetia. The objectives of the association are to support the conservation schemes, to present the site to the public and in particular to develop a new museum. One of its main tasks is to look for financing using its relations with foundations, politicians and other private partners. If the excavations on the site of the Roman town and large parts of the museum exhibition are today generally financed by the canton of Vaud, all extra financing as well as most of the work involving the presentation to the public is taken over by Pro Aventico.

The association has about 600 members, who pay an annual subscription fee for which they receive the yearly publications of Aventicum as well as free entrance to the museum and site, but also to other nearby Roman site museums. The statistics show that most members of the association are private individuals, followed by archaeologists and members of different companies. There are more economical partners than institutions, although the latter usually have greater power to take decisions within the association. It is directed by a committee composed of a banker, current and previous cantonal archaeologists, representatives of the site and museum, tourism partners, the mayor and representatives of the municipality as well as interested amateurs; all important or respected people on a local or regional level. The association thus forms the link between the people responsible for the site, the authorities (cantonal and communal), economic partners including tourism, and the local community. The committee members use their know-how and their network to 'get things done'.

The particularity of Pro Aventico consists in the partnership it developed with other similar associations, such as Pro Vistiliaco, Gletterens, Pro Vallon, Pro Lousanna or the Association of Friends of the museums of Nyon, which have common interests or are situated in the same region. This encourages common projects and finally a larger participation of the members. Also, the modus vivendi of Pro Aventico results in its members having strong ties to the site and the museum through its 'Club des bénévoles'. These volunteers help out with different activities, sometimes with their families. The feeling of belonging is indeed important for the association and different possibilities of sharing experiences and important moments among members are offered. It is also possible for volunteers to participate in work done for other partner associations, allowing them to share their talents in other contexts, liberating themselves from the typically very closed up organisational form linked to this kind of association.

The association helped finance the modernisation of the exhibition organised for the 180th anniversary of the museum, with the acquisition of interactive digital media and an interactive model showing the entire site of Aventicum (Figure 2). Pro Aventico also regularly releases publications: The Bulletin Pro Aventico, whose first number goes back to 1887, includes scientific reports. Aventicum or Nouvelles de l'Association Pro Aventico began in 1977 and answers the needs of a larger public, promoting the activities of the association while presenting general archaeological themes in relation to the site and the Roman period in general.

The management of the museum and site of Aventicum would be unimaginable without Pro Aventico, which takes responsibility for a major part of the work of disseminating the knowledge among the local population and developing a network among similar institutions. Its way of working integrates all kinds of members, old and young, who wish to spend time organising and participating in activities around Roman Avenches.

Figure 2
Figure 2: The new exhibition in the Museum of Aventicum (Avenches) © Pro Aventico

6.2 Pro Fenis Hasenburg

Many archaeological sites and, more specifically, ruins (Roman, medieval, or even dating to the 19th century) may be found in the mountainous landscapes of Switzerland. They are mostly owned today by the municipalities in which they are found, but are officially the responsibility of the cantonal heritage offices. These offices cannot physically take care of all the ruins in their territory. Therefore, most are left as they are, and only minimal interventions are provided. Nevertheless, the local communities have a close relationship with these monuments and often would like to renovate and use them for social activities. Citizens, therefore, use the creation of associations to show their interest and to develop plans for the restoration and presentation of the sites. In the canton of Bern, there are approximately 200 castles and 40 ruins. Of these ruins, about half have been renovated thanks to these local associations. Pro Fenis Hasenburg, created in 2017, is the last of a series in that canton, following Verein Burg Mannenberg, Weissenburgbad, and Pro Ruine Jagdburg, to name but a few.

The objective of the association is to renovate the pathways leading to the ruins of the 14th-century feudal mound of Burg Fenis (Figure 3) and the Early Iron Age tumuli in the forest of Shaltenrain, near Ins, and promote research on these famous but scientifically little-known sites. Pro Fenis Hasenburg numbers about 80 members after only one year of existence, mostly members of the local community. The committee includes local amateur historians and archaeologists, and has a good network among financing and political institutions. It is managed on a volunteer basis. The association has gained acceptance by the cantonal archaeological service, which has offered help for the concept and the work to be done on-site as well as with funding possibilities through the cantonal lottery. An important part of the work, which led to the development of a restoration concept, was facilitated through an active regional promotion, including information week-ends and guided tours, bringing together potential financial and building partners. It took less than a year to secure financing and produce an effective plan for the future work on the site.

Pro Fenis Hasenburg ensures community engagement and participation, not only at the general assembly, but also when it comes to activities such as cleaning paths, helping out with the building and preparing the site for visitors, developing the website and other information material, guide training, and so on. The association guarantees the link between the population, the local politicians and the cantonal institutions. This is a win-win solution for all partners, amateur and professional, since research will then be possible and a further site will be accessible for both the local population and tourists visiting the region. However, to maintain the enthusiasm of the local population, the association must have an exciting programme and, especially, encourage young people from the schools and scouting associations, so that the site stays in the hearts of the visitors and the inhabitants, who will therefore find new ways to ensure the continuity of remembrance of this special place.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Visitors using the stairs leading to the medieval ruins in Fenis-Hasenburg © ArchaeoConcept

6.3 Historische Vereinigung Seetal und Umgebung

The protection of the archaeological and historical landscape over the borders of two different cantons, Aargau and Baselland, is the main objective of the Historical Association for Seetal and its surroundings, with its 500 members. Its particularity is that it unites the population of the Seetal, independently of the cantonal affiliation. The aims of this association, created in 1922, are to raise awareness of the local Seetal population about historical and archaeological questions and give a better understanding of the historical landscape of the region. Before the existence of the cantonal archaeological services in the 1940s, active members of the association excavated archaeological sites and renovated medieval ruins. Today, the association mainly organises excursions and events uniting the local museums, the cantonal archaeological services as well as local companies (Figure 4). In 2004, the association saved a 17th-century wooden store house from destruction and helped bring back a 16th-century glass disc of a local society to the municipality. The association has a very strong affinity with the region, and important contacts with the cantonal archaeological services of both Aargau and Baselland. This is particularly important considering the federal character of Swiss archaeology and the administrative differences between the neighbouring cantons. The association, thus, may serve as a good example of intercantonal co-operation.

Figure 4
Figure 4: Presenting information about the association during an archaeological week-end in Sarmenstorf (AG) © ArchaeoConcept

6.4 ArchaeoTourism

Finally, there are a number of associations that are dedicated to particular themes. Archaeotourism is an association created in 2012 as a way of developing relationships between the archaeologists and tourism specialists. It regularly organises conferences on themes linking both sectors and publishes the results (Figure 5). It also organises national projects promoting tourism such as This original association covers areas that the cantonal archaeological services cannot or do not want to develop themselves, although most activities are supported by them selectively. The conferences are backed by the Federal Office of Culture and the site-of-the-month project by the Federal Office of Economy. The association thus assists the archaeological services in the promotion of the archaeological sites that are open to the public on a national scale, which they are not able to do owing to the cantonal autonomy.

Figure 5
Figure 5: Discussing the future of archaeology and tourism during the 2012 conference © ArchaeoConcept

Through these examples, which could be complemented by many more, it is possible to observe the diversity of possibilities and approaches offered by the different types of archaeological associations and societies existing in Switzerland.

7. Conclusions

For an association, the purpose of service is more important than profit. For archaeological associations, this includes the protection, conservation, enhancement and presentation of archaeological sites, or the defence of the interests of archaeological heritage and the profession. They mobilise both interested citizens and specialists to ensure a long-term interest in archaeology, for the protection of sites through a regular activity of dissemination of knowledge at different levels.

Most of the work is voluntary, and without this commitment, it would be difficult for state institutions to ensure sustainable heritage conservation, which depends largely on the support of the local population and understanding of policies. Finally, located between the private economy and public institutions, associations help to find public funding where government institutions cannot. However, this form of private-public collaboration, which is specific to Switzerland, is threatened and must be encouraged. Together, we must find solutions to ensure the survival of these organisations, which are so vital for the protection and dissemination of knowledge for all related to archaeological sites and monuments under the responsibility of the cantons as representatives of the Swiss State.

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