Woodworking from the ‘Bone Age’

Neolithic-Toolkit-Well-Small

One of the curious frustrations in researching “Ingenious Mechanicks” was reading the reports from archaeologists who speculated on how woodworking tools were used or objects were made. It became obvious that some of these guys didn’t know the difference between a dovetail and a mortise. And hadn’t ever cut one.

Not all archeologists are like this.

Check out this fantastic article from the Archaeology.org site about the joinery in a 7,000-year-old well. Not only do they do normal stuff in the lab, but they try to remake the well with tools available at the time. And start with the tree.

“You have to handle things. By using stone tools ourselves, we can see what works and what doesn’t work,” says archaeologist Rengert Elburg. “Because from your writing desk you can’t say anything.”

I put it a bit more crudely in “Ingenious Mechanicks:”

“It’s not fair to our early ancestors to put words in their mouths. We don’t know how dry their wood was when they started to build their workbenches. Was it fresh from the tree? Dried for 20 years? Something in between?

“We can guess, which is what most people do. Or we can build a bunch of workbenches from woods in varying degrees of wetness and observe the results through several years. This second path is much more difficult than sitting naked in the dark at your computer keyboard – fingers covered in the dust of Cheetos – and pontificating online. But it’s the path I took.”

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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23 Responses to Woodworking from the ‘Bone Age’

  1. Kent Ryan says:

    Thanks for your post and the link to the “Bone Age” article at Archeology.org. “History” is never quite as straight forward as we might believe!

    • I’ll second your sentiment that the “Bone Age” article was fascinating. I’d be really interested in seeing the process they used to make the tools too. Getting from bone to chisel seems pretty straightforward, but turning stone into a stone axe seems like a lot of work.

  2. rons54 says:

    One of my history professors used to say, “Never assume that you are smarter than your ancestors just because you know more.”

  3. Richard Mahler says:

    I have read a lot of archaeology, much of it very early European. I agree that there was a deal of pontificating from archaeologists in earlier decades, but, while there is necessarily speculation involved in any view into the lives of people in prehistory, it is gratifying that archaeologists in recent decades are far less likely to do as much, preferring to consult with experts outside their field as well as share findings and ask questions of others in the field. There is less rush to publish and greater respect for opinions on most matters. No one writing in the field these days enjoys being charged later with with sloppy methods. Much of this stems from the realization, long overdue, that prehistoric cultures were as intelligent as we are inclined to think we are, but had cruder tools at their disposal, and may have had different cultural and aesthetic motives at work. Nevertheless, their ingenuity, talent and knowledge of materials are remarkable. Your research and methods of investigating woodworking of the past hands-on is fascinating and valuable to everyone. That you also publish is laudable.

  4. Richard Mahler says:

    Most of the recent investigations of monuments five thousand years old surrounding Stonehenge on the Marlborough Downs have found some of the antlers used to dig out the meters-wide-and-deep ditches that surrounded stone and wood ceremonial circles and burial mounds. They were digging out solid chalk! It would have taken teams of hundreds of workers to do such massive works. Evidence seems to suggest that the antlers they find may have been deposited intentionally and ceremoniously, not just left on site when the work was done, revealing respect for the tools they worked with that may have been almost religious in nature. That standing stones weighing tens of tons were dressed and shaped using stone tools, then moved tens of miles without the aid of wheels, shows dedication and purpose for which we have little understanding. Many thousands of pigs and cattle were slaughtered to feed those who gathered to work and celebrate over several decades, so there was also no shortage of bone for tools, but little wood survives for evidence of carpentry, though mortise and tenon would have been employed on a grand scale in the wood henges, and even mimicked in stone in Stonehenge.

  5. Joe says:

    I would love to see a book from Lost Art Press covering research into this era of woodworking. Please. Pretty please.

  6. Anthony says:

    That Cheeto dust is very difficult to remove. Takes a real man.

  7. Rick says:

    Great stuff. Thanks for the link.

  8. Very Interesting, I retweeted on your Twitter post. It turns out we were not as primitive as many would think, mortise & tenon joints in riven oak 7000 years ago? JEEZ, that’s incredible!
    THANKS for sharing!

    • Chris F says:

      Why would anyone think that pre-Iron age craftsmen and women were primitive? They had to substitute intelligence and hard won skill for technological advances. The skills required of someone in that era simply to live was mind boggling.

  9. ericfromdayton says:

    Just as impressive as the somewhat flat and square beams they made, is the simple fact that somehow they dug out a well twenty some foot deep. The beams indicate that they were laid from the bottom to the top so they must have had either vines or a “rope” to lower everything. Perhaps they even invented a block & tackle or pulley system? The joints they show look more like a “Lincoln” log joint than a mortise & tendon. Where are the tusks they mentioned? I am also curious how they determined the age of the well. Is it possible they are wrong and it’s more modern?

  10. Gye Greene says:

    I’m pleased that they’re trying out the actual techniques. Sounds like the sub-field called “Experimental Archeology” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experimental_archaeology).

    –GG

  11. Very interesting, thanks. I ate cookies while reading, don’t do cheetos.

  12. As an archaeologist (and sometimes woodworker) who replicates preindustrial technology, I certainly approve this message. Thanks!

  13. Mike Siemsen says:

    While we call this the stone(bone) age the people living at that time were woodworkers. Stone and bone were used to make or improve wooden implements such as spears and clubs. We don’t call it the “wood age” because we have never left the wood age, stone, bronze, iron, space, information, whatever “age” you are in wood is a, if not the, dominant material in use. I believe it could be argued that part of the driving force in making better edge tools with stone, copper, bronze, iron, and steel was to improve woodworking tools. Advancements that wouldn’t have been possible without wood to make charcoal to work the metal.
    It is difficult to find a technology that doesn’t have it’s roots in wood.

  14. Simon Stucki says:

    very interesting thanks for sharing!

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