First farmers crafted ancient water wells without metal tools

Discovery in German dig proves skill of ancient carpenters despite lack of metal carving tools

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 6:00am


The people who lived in eastern Germany around 7,000 years ago are thought to have been some of the first farmers.

Now, new archaeological evidence suggests they were also skilled woodworkers, crafting intricate water wells some 2,000 years before metal tools were forged in Europe.

Sophisticated in construction, four wells discovered near Leipzig were built using stone carving implements and wooden mauls and wedges, said Willy Tegel, a researcher at the Institute for Forest Growth at the University of Freiburg in Germany.

"The first farmers were also the first carpenters," Tegel and his colleagues wrote in a study published this month in the journal PLoS One. The people who built the wells were members of the so-called Linear Pottery Culture, which produced pottery with distinctive incised lines more than 6,500 years ago.

Archaeologists believe these ancient people migrated from areas that are now the Ukraine and Slovakia through the fertile regions of Central Europe.

The wells were discovered as part of an excavation of areas about 193 kilometres southwest of Berlin.

The wood was intact because it was buried in waterlogged soil where fungi and bacteria - organisms that usually cause wood to decay - could not survive.

Tegel is an expert in a technique known as dendrochronology, which takes advantage of distinctive patterns in tree rings to determine the ages of wooden objects.

The method involves comparing the ring patterns in ancient wood to historical reference patterns for a certain region.

Each time period is unique because the shape and width of the rings varies due to climate and other environmental factors.

By establishing a historical match for the outermost ring under the bark, scientists can surmise the year when a tree was chopped down.

Tegel and his collaborators examined 151 oak timbers used to make the newly discovered wells and concluded that the trees were felled between 5469 and 5098 BC. They also determined that at least 46 trees contributed to the material.

These trees were up to 300 years old when harvested, and up to a metre in diameter.

The wells were constructed with "tube-like" sections made from hollowed-out tree trunks. They also had body chambers that were built out of carefully engineered interlocking logs.

"These kinds of corner joints and connections between the wood were very sophisticated," Tegel said. Such complexity had been unexpected, he added, because the early farmers who built them did not have metal tools.

Princeton archaeologist Peter Bogucki was enthusiastic about the find. "This is a super discovery that gives us a whole new insight into the lives on these early farming settlements," he said.