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The Neolithic Toolkit

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

November/December 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