Science Notes: Sticking with it: identifying woodworking strategies in the Palaeolithic

Wood, for obvious reasons, is a rare discovery in the world of archaeology, with any and all recovered artefacts made from such a material heavily prized for research opportunities. Because of its relative scarcity, though, the best methodologies for analysing ancient wood are often undertested. In this month’s Science Notes, we will explore a new project that has assessed, in depth, a worked, wooden stick, dated to c.300,000 years ago from the site of Schöningen in Germany. Using multiple methods – including micro-CT scanning and 3D microscopy – the international team, led by Annemieke Milks from the University of Reading, were able to show not only what details can be discerned through their strategy, but also that the hominins who created this tool were adept at woodworking.

Today, Schöningen 13 II is a lignite mine south of Helmstedt, Germany, but during an interglacial period of the Middle Pleistocene, it was a lakeside site, which has proven to be rich in ancient wooden artefacts, with up to ten wooden spears and two short double-pointed wooden sticks found over a number of different excavations. One of the short double-pointed sticks – the first wooden object to be found at the site – was the focus of this recent analysis (ABOVE). Broken down into different phases of the stick’s ‘lifecycle’, from raw material to excavated artefact, the team recreated how it was made, used, deposited, and then finally excavated and conserved.

Morphological analysis identified the stick as having started its life as the branch of a spruce tree. Archaeobotanical analysis of other organic material excavated from the site revealed the presence of pine and birch pollen as well as pollen from a small number of alder, willow, and juniper trees, but very little spruce pollen. This suggests that the wooden implements found at Schöningen – all of which were made from either spruce or pine – were probably not made there and were instead brought to the lakeside site.

Analysis of slices of the stick, using micro-CT scans, then revealed a number of interesting details through the analysis of the tree rings. The team found that the amount of growth each year, as represented by the size of the rings, was very slow, with an average of 0.2mm per annum. Modern spruce is usually much less dense, with wider annual rings, so the Middle Pleistocene spruce used for this object was probably growing under sub-optimal conditions, either due to high altitude, drought conditions, nutrient deficiencies, or the changing climate, which was headed into another glacial period at the time these tools were deposited.

The stick measures 77.2cm in length, with a maximum diameter of 2.5cm, and it has a slight, natural curve. Due to the effects of gravity as the branch grew, this means that the wood on its underside is harder and denser than that on the upper side. Analysis of tool marks on the stick using 3D microscopy suggests that the hominin who made this tool may have taken advantage of this difference, preferentially removing wood from the softer, more-easily worked side of the branch. As the stick has no cracks or breaks that appear to have occurred before deposition, it must have been seasoned (i.e. left to dry, either naturally over time or over a fire) before it was stripped of its bark and carved. These two characteristics indicate that the hominin who made this tool probably had an advanced knowledge of the properties of wood and how best to carve it.

In terms of how it was used, the stick was found to have a smooth, worn area near the middle, suggesting that it had been frequently handled in this position. Based on both the characteristics identified on the stick as well as ethnographic parallels, the team suggest that it was probably used as a ‘throwing stick’, whereby it would be thrown, spinning, at a target – likely smaller mammals or possibly even birds, although it could also have potentially incapacitated larger prey. Based on its somewhat diminutive size, it has also been hypothesised that it might have been a children’s toy weapon, used for helping to teach them how to hunt. While this cannot be ruled out, experimental and ethnographic studies do reveal that it would have fully functioned as an effective hunting tool in its own right, potentially reaching prey up to 30m away, and possibly even further.

As the stick was found whole, in situ, and located further away from the other wooden objects found at the site, the team suspect that, after a well-used life, this artefact was possibly lost before quickly being covered by mud, helping to preserve it for the next c.300,000 years.

Overall, from what at first glance appears to be a simple stick, sharpened at two ends, this research has shown that scientific techniques are able to provide us with a whole wealth of information about the artefact’s life course. The full results of the research were recently published in PLOS One:

Text: Kathryn Krakowka / Image: Volker Minkus/Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage