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The Neolithic Toolkit

How experimental archaeology is showing that Europe's first farmers were also its first carpenters


Tuesday, October 14, 2014



Not too long ago, archaeologist Rengert Elburg found something that convinced him that “Stone Age sophistication” is not a contradiction in terms. It was a wood-lined well, discovered during construction work in Altscherbitz, near the eastern German city of Leipzig. Buried more than 20 feet underground, preserved for millennia by cold, wet, oxygen–free conditions, the timber box at the bottom of the well was 7,000 years old—the world’s oldest known intact wooden architecture.


Elburg’s team at the Saxony State Archaeological Office removed the ancient well in a single 70-ton block, and brought it back to their lab in Dresden for careful excavation, documentation, and preservation. There, they recovered 151 timbers from the well, which, during the Neolithic period, was part of a large settlement that included nearly 100 timber longhouses. Even after so many millennia, the well’s extraordinary state of preservation began to give the researchers clues to the tools and techniques the ancient woodworkers used. They learned, for example, that to reinforce the bottom of the well, prehistoric carpenters had fashioned boards and beams from old-growth oaks three feet thick, then fit them together using tusked mortise-and-tenon joints, a technique not seen again until the Roman Empire, five millennia later.


When Elburg examined the wood, he could see not only tree rings but also tool marks. But with nothing to compare these ancient tool marks to, this evidence was hard to understand. Thus, he and a motley collection of archaeologists, amateur woodworkers, historical reenactors, and flintknapping hobbyists have been gathering each spring since 2011 for a most unusual workshop. Held in a forest just outside the town of Ergersheim in the southern German region of Franconia, it’s experimental archaeology with a serious purpose.


Neolithic-Toolkit-AxesOn the first full day of the 2014 workshop, a late-March Saturday, the woods are the dull brown of dead leaves, with a few tiny white flowers emerging to greet the unseasonably warm sun. It’s easy to spot the workshop participants—they’re all wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with an adze-wielding beaver. Elburg’s brought along a Stone Age woodworking toolkit fashioned by freelance archaeo-technician Wulf Hein, who uses the replica tools he makes to create copies of ancient artifacts. After less than an hour of hacking away at a sturdy, decades-old oak donated by the local authorities, a glancing blow has shattered the sharp end of a basalt wedge, rendering it unusable. Red T-shirts cluster around Elburg as he declares the wedge—a 5.5-pound triangle of stone with a hole in the broad end, attached to a slender wood handle—unsalvageable. It’s one of only a handful they have along. “That’s really a shame,” the archaeologist says with a grimace. “That one was really nicely carved. Too bad. Time for another broad wedge, I guess.”



Recreating The Neolithic Toolkit

Dawn of a Thousand Suns

As the beginning of the Atomic Age fades into history, archaeologists work to document a time of uncertainty and experimentation

By SAMIR S. PATEL (Additional Reporting by BARRY YEOMAN)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014



The time: 1955. The place: a dry lakebed in southern Nevada called Frenchman Flat. An explosion equivalent to 22,000 tons of TNT creates a roiling mass of superheated, low-density gas. This fireball rises and collides with the surrounding air, creating turbulent vortices that suck smoke and debris up from the ground into a column. The “stem” rises into cooler, thinner air, where the ascent slows, debris disperses, and moisture condenses to form a “cap.” Over days and even months, nuclear fallout spreads and drifts to Earth.


Between 1951 and 1962, well after the detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 14 mushroom clouds rose above this corner of the Nevada desert. They were part of a long, complex, and varied program of nuclear testing, and each had a broad audience. One part was global, as the Cold War superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, squared off; the other was sitting on benches on an overlook seven miles away. A stream of political and military VIPs sat there, squinting at blasts and being buffeted by powerful shockwaves. Today, 11 rows of the benches sit under the desert sun, with nails jutting from their warped, desiccated planks. “I like these benches,” says Colleen Beck, an archaeologist with the Desert Research Institute (DRI), part of the Nevada System of Higher Education. “While hardly anyone comes here now, you can really imagine people sitting on them, watching a test.”


Nuclear-America-BenchesFrenchman Flat is one of 14 historic districts at what was once called the Nevada Test Site (now the Nevada National Security Site), 1,360 square miles of dust, scrub, and mesa managed by the U.S. Department of Energy. This battlefield that never saw a battle was a main source of the heat of the Cold War. All told, more than 1,000 nuclear weapons were detonated at the Test Site—aboveground and in tunnels—over more than 40 years. Material from these experiments is scattered across the landscape. Each squat building, twisted hunk of metal, and heavily gated tunnel entrance reflects the need both to understand a new, utterly alien power—and to project a mastery of that power to the rest of the world. Beck and her colleagues at the DRI, under contract with the Department of Energy, have spent two decades cataloguing and studying these diverse remains—the rusted wreckage of towers that held bombs, seemingly mundane research support areas, instruments from specific experiments, mock suburban homes. The Test Site offers a complex archaeology of science and war, of geopolitics and popular culture.