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PATHS INTO THE THICKET OF HISTORY
1 The 'Wood Age'
Do materials make history?
Wood is a special kind of material. From time immemorial, the skill of the human hand has developed by working wood, so much so that we might say the relationship with it is part of human nature. The handling of wood is a basic element in the history of the human body, and in the history of craftsmanship.
In a brown coal mine at Schöningen in Lower Saxony, eight wooden spears have been discovered since 1994 that date back 400,000 years – by far the oldest known wooden implements anywhere in the world (figure 1.1). This highly improbable find is in its way more spectacular than all those at Troy put together. It testifies to an amazing skill in woodworking, greater than anyone previously attributed to people in the Palaeolithic Age, and it shows just how early man developed a high level of competence in dealing with wood. An earlier prehistoric object – a yew spear unearthed at Clacton-on-Sea in 1911 – had already caused a sensation, but after the Schöningen find that was seen to be not just an isolated case but a representative example of Palaeolithic woodcraft.
The know-how associated with wood belongs, as it were, to 'human nature' – to a primal anthropological state. Hartmut Thieme writes of the Schöningen spears: 'The technical perfection of these ballistically balanced weapons points to a long tradition of using such implements.' The exciting conclusion is that humans were capable of big-game hunting hundreds of thousands of years earlier than we previously thought (Thieme 2007: 85). Since 1973 there has been considerable discussion of Paul S. Martin's thesis of 'Pleistocene overkill', according to which North American big game, with the exception of certain kinds of bison, were wiped out by human invaders within the space of a few centuries, some 10,000 years ago. Archaeological finds have indeed revealed a striking overlap between the appearance of humans and the disappearance of big game. The problem with the theory seemed to be that it was hard to imagine how these early humans could have technically mastered big-game hunting on such a scale. But, if we think of the art of perfect woodcraft stretching back into the mists of time, and applied precisely to hunting weapons, then the problem vanishes; the missing link is found.
The glacier mummy of 'Ötzi' from 5,300 years ago, which caused such a sensation when it was discovered in 1991 in the Ötztal in the Austrian Alps, had no fewer than seventeen different kinds of wood on it, each used for a particular purpose (Spindler 1994: 232–8). Archaeologists have also refuted Tacitus' claim that the ancient Germans built their houses from unhewn tree trunks; it appears again and again that the 'savages' were not as savage as we used to think. Ötzi has distracted public attention from oak-lined wells dug up in opencast mining areas in Saxony and near Erkelenz in the Rhineland, which dendrochronological datings have shown to be more than 7,000 years old. These completely unexpected finds have revolutionized our picture of prehistoric settlements in Central Europe, but most spectacular of all have been the wooden nails that make expert eyes as big as saucers. The archaeologist Susanne Friedrich commented: 'After these, anything is possible!' One is curious whether the 'Stone Age' will one day prove to have been a highly developed 'Wood Age'!
Figure 1.1: Eight wooden throwing-spears were found in and after 1995 in an opencast brown coal mine at Schöningen, in the foothills of the Harz mountains. Dating back 400,000 years, they are the oldest huntin