Neolithic farmers were very capable carpenters – Archaeological evidence from excavations in Germany

In this post we present selected parts of the very interesting paper titled “Early Neolithic Water Wells Reveal the World’s Oldest Wood Architecture”, by Willy Tegel et al. (2012).

“After the last Ice Age ~12,000 BP, the Central European landscape changed from steppes to dense woodlands, and the climate became warmer and likely also wetter. During the 6th millennium BC, sedentariness became the dominant lifestyle of the Central European population, which began to cultivate plants, raise livestock, produce ceramics, and exploit the woodlands as a timber resource. This transformation marked the onset of the Neolithic period, and for the first time, human societies began to transform their natural environment into a cultural landscape. Sedentism required permanent building structures for living and storage. Consequently, innovations in tool manufacture and woodworking techniques were crucial for setting up the required settlement infrastructure. The Neolithization is associated with a profound shift in prehistoric society and well represented by a homogeneous material culture across most of the European continent.”

“Here, we present annually resolved and absolutely dated treering samples from 151 oak (Quercus spp.) timbers from four water well constructions excavated in Altscherbitz, Brodau and Eythra (denoted by A, B, E1 and E2). The individual ring width measurement series cover 371 years from 5469 to 5098 BC, and all of the timbers originate from at least 46 mature trees. The individual felling dates of wells A, B, E1 and E2 correspond to construction activities in 5099, at 5190±10, in 5098 and after 5206 BC, respectively.”

“The early Neolithic settlers felled mature oak trees up to 300 years old and measuring 1 m maximum in diameter. Stone adzes with transversely hafted blades were used, and the felling cuts were placed just above breast height. (…) The logs were split first in half with wooden wedges that were hammered in using wooden mauls. (…) There is evidence on the timber surfaces that the log halves were cut to their final length by adze work and the use of burning charcoals. (…) The trimmed halves were then again radially or tangentially split into the final timbers. After smoothing the split timber surfaces using adzes, the boards were ready for constructional use.”

“Two types of well linings were assembled into construction pits reaching the ground water level up to 7 m below the surface: a chest-like well lining (using timber logs) and a tube-like well lining (using hollowed trunk sections). The chest-like construction in well B served to stabilize the construction pit before a hollowed trunk was inserted. Well E2 experienced two stratigraphically distinct construction phases. The older lining consisted of a hollowed maple tree resting on four oak boards that were not fixed to one other. The more recent lining was built on top of the previous lining using only logs. All of the chest-like well linings were constructed using notched timbers that were either cogged or interlocked at their corner joints. The linings of wells A and E1 rested on basal frames that were constructed with mortise and tenon joints. The tenons of well A extended beyond the outer face of the joined timber and were perforated and keyed by wooden wedges.”

“Many of the tool marks on the timber surfaces can be attributed to typical early Neolithic ground stone adzes. Unlike later archaeological cultures, parallel-hafted axes were unknown in the LBK. The predominant tool for woodworking was the transversely hafted adze with the ground stone blades that are extensively known from the archaeological record. The observed tool marks prove the use of wider stone adzes (cutting edge width ~50 mm) for finishing timber surfaces, whereas narrow stone adzes (‘shoe-last’ adzes, cutting edge width ~20 mm) were employed for timber trimming. This differentiated use of specialized tools for specific tasks is another indication of the high level of specialization in woodworking techniques.”

“The Central European Neolithization coincided with the Holocene Climate Optimum that occurred ~7,500 years ago. Relatively mild and humid conditions along with little variation in the Earth’s climate system likely positively affected ecosystem productivity. Thus this may have also enabled the agricultural success of the first farmers, which was closely related to forest clearing and timber exploitation.”

“This study demonstrates that the first farmers were also the first carpenters, contradicting the common belief that the invention of metal woodworking tools more than a thousand years later was imperative for complex timber constructions. Settlers of the early Neolithic time were able to build sophisticated corner joints and log constructions, which fulfilled all of the static requirements of massive water well linings. Their technical skills further imply the existence of complex constructions for LBK longhouse architecture”

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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