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The Prehistoric Settlement of the Canton Glarus

By Hermann Bossi, Oberurnen (Translation by Patrick A. Wild)

The area of the canton of Glarus was discovered by humans only late. During the ice age, the entire cantonal area was uninhabitable. Even today, numerous traces of the glacial activity of that time can be found, e.g. in the Nagelfluh rocks in Niederurnen or also in the form of the large Wall moraine, which today forms the lake dam between Pfäffikon and Rapperswil. This formation also impressively shows how far the glaciers had advanced at that time. If, nevertheless, there were people in the Glarus region in earlier times, these processes must have destroyed any evidence of Paleolithic hunters.

The Stone Age

If one wants to talk about the Stone Age in the canton of Glarus, this will probably result in a very short conversation, because there is actually hardly anything to say. While other parts of Switzerland show traces of settlement and evidence of early agriculture during the Neolithic period, such findings are largely absent for the Glarus region. Single arrowheads found in the area of Netstal as well as the castle mound of Oberurnen at least point to the temporary presence of Neolithic hunters.

Compared to other Swiss regions, the presence of Old Europeans is rather rare, so one can assume that neither the original hunter-gatherers nor the farmers and cattle breeders who migrated from Anatolia settled in Glarus. But why actually? The Glarnerland would have been open after the melting of the glaciers.

However, this is only partly true, because the primeval Glarus region is clearly different from its present state. For example, later agriculture, clearing and especially the Linth plant as well as the construction of dams and walls have completely changed the image of the canton. But what would the visitor of the Stone Age have found? Forests and swamps. For example, the region of the Glarner Unterland and the Linth area was a huge swamp. Even today, the term Riet reminds us of this time, which was not so long ago. Even in the Middle Ages and early modern times, these areas were considered malaria regions. Where there was no swamp, the valley was covered with dense virgin forests. Thus, it means that after overcoming the terrible swamps, one would also have to face a battle with the forests.

Thus, the Glarnerland remained rather deserted, it was simply too inhospitable, and as long as there were easier to develop areas, it was probably left to the left.

The Bronze Age

The transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age is not a sharp process, but occurred at a different time in each region. In any case, the new material does not come from native lands, but is introduced by people newly migrating from the steppes. During the Bronze Age, these people shaped two large-scale European cultures, the Corded Ware Culture and the Bell Beaker Culture.

What is special about Switzerland is that the border of both cultures is located in its territory. Genetically, the somewhat older Schnurkeramics have left hardly any traces in today's Glarners. The advancing Bell Beakers were probably also quite uninterested in the Glarnerland, because it has by no means become more inviting.

Nevertheless, there are some finds for this period, even if this is limited to a few objects such as a sword and a few nails. Practically all finds were made in the lower Linth area, but it must be noted that there were hardly any such researches in other parts of the Glarus region. Whether people from the Bronze Age also ventured into the alpine areas would still have to be researched.

Iron Age

3200 years ago, the Bronze Age culture with its globalized trade network disintegrated. It was a time of great migrations, and there were also areas, e.g. the Po Valley, which were literally depopulated (an exodus). In some regions, an almost 400-year hiatus followed, and people apparently unlearned the art of written language. In Central Europe, the large-scale Urnfield culture became established. During this time, the changeover to a new metal, iron, took place. Compared to bronze, it had the advantage that only one ore was needed, which was also available in greater quantities. The extraction of iron, however, required technical innovations, because it required significantly more energy to extract the iron than was the case with copper and tin.

Thus, society recovered from the collapse and, thanks to the new technology, was also no longer so dependent on global trade. And after 400 years, people in Greece and the Levant began to write again, producing bestsellers like the Bible and the Illiad.

Now it is a sad fact that the canton of Glarus can hardly show any undoubted finds with regard to the Iron Age. In the course of the centuries, the Urnfield culture gave way to the Hallstatt culture, and with it began the spread of Celtic peoples. Unfortunately, there is not much that can be dated physically to the pre-Roman period. What was preserved, however, were linguistic relics, i.e. remnants in river and field names. And also genetically the people of Glarus cannot deny their Celtic heritage.

The distribution of Celtic toponyms suggests in any case how far the Celts knew the Glarus region in pre-Roman times. Thus, they apparently explored the Linth almost to its source and were also the name givers of Durnagel and Limmern. The river names Sernf and Löntsch also go back to Celtic roots, the same may be assumed for the Klöntal.

Thus we owe to the genes and the language the hint that the first who really set foot in the Glarnerland were probably the Celts.

The Gallo-Roman period

With the Alpine campaign in 15 B.C. the finding situation changes. For the first time, physically tangible traces of human presence are found. In the course of the conquest of eastern Switzerland, a number of watchtowers were erected along the path that integrated Lake Walen. On Glarus territory there is one of them, which today forms the foundation of a farmhouse in Filzbach next to the Römerturm restaurant. Comparable towers were located at Strahlegg in Betlis, where a medieval castle was later built over it, as well as on Biberlichopf, where a bunker was built during the First World War. Furthermore, Roman coins were found near the Letzi wall of Näfels, and there is also speculation that the Letzi was actually originally a Roman site. In the vicinity of the Biberlichopf, the statue of Mercury, now exhibited in the National Museum of the Canton of Glarus, was also found in the Linth region. There was also a Gallo-Roman temple in Hüttenböschen on the shores of Lake Walen.

In addition to the clear archaeological traces, there are also numerous linguistic legacies. Their distribution indicates that significantly more areas were covered in the Roman period than was still the case with the Celts. Several place names also point to a Gallo-Roman origin, such as all the valley communities of today's Glarus Nord, but then also Glarus, Netstal and Sool. Various mountain, water and field names also refer to this period. After the decline of Roman rule, parts of the Sernftal were settled by Romans migrating from the Vorderreintal, who also inserted abundant linguistic traces such as Camperdun.


Finally, another reminder of the original Celtic-Roman population comes from the Alemanni, who, for example, named Lake Walen, which means nothing else than Welsch Lake, by which they meant the original Gallo-Roman population.

It was the Alemanni who finally made a large part of the canton economically usable. But it was probably rather a mixing than a displacement of the population, because in the male line the Glarus population is clearly less Germanic than Celtic.

Nevertheless, the newcomers left their mark on the Glarus region, and a large part of the Glarus communities, mountains, streams and corridors only got their names through the Alemanni, be it by naming founders as in Luchsingen and Hätzingen, or also by describing the reclamation through clearing (Schwändi, Schwanden, Betschwanden, Rüti etc.). Thus, these linguistic relics also tell something about the settlement history.

Above all, the Alemanni shaped the Glarus dialect. This belongs to the so-called Southern Alemannic dialects, which used to be called High Alemannic in order to distinguish them from the Lower Alemannic in the north on the one hand and the High Alemannic in the south on the other. Now, it is not the case that there is only one Glarner dialect, so there are ways of speaking that are sometimes limited to only one village. It is also not difficult to distinguish between a speaker from the Kleinstal and the Grosstal. And even greater is the linguistic difference between the northern and southern halves of the canton. Of course, the dialect of the Kerenz communities is again clearly distinguished from those of the valley communities.

This linguistic demarcation also roughly corresponds to the genetic groups that are to be expected in the canton of Glarus, if we refer to genealogy. Even if it is a fact that practically every Glarner is related to every other Glarner in one way or another, there are also areas where one is "more related". I hope not to remind here too strongly of Orwell. Thus, both linguistically and genetically, a line can be clearly drawn between Catholic and Protestant. Of course, there is no Catholic or Protestant gene, it was a decision that each place, each family, had to make for itself. Thus, the communities of Näfels and Oberurnen were practically in an island-like situation.

It is also true that it is closer for inhabitants of the Kleintal to marry each other than to look for their partners in other areas. Certain communities like Schwändi are quite isolated due to their location. Mostly people got married within the same community or at least within the same valley, even if there were exceptions. Nevertheless, the influence of these few exceptions should have quite little effect on the expected picture.

As a result of the situation, there were also different connections to the areas outside the cantonal territory. Thus, there were many connections of the Catholic communities with the Wäggital and the March as well as Amden, Schänis and Benken. Protestant Glarner, on the other hand, often chose partners from the Rhine Valley, especially when the latter was a bailiwick of the Glarner.

The Glarnerland thus shows on a small scale what is known to be true on a large scale as well. Ultimately, it is today's people and the linguistic legacies that reveal more about the settlement of the canton than the sparse finds ever could.

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