The Museum of the Wood Age


Given the preponderance of stone, bronze, and iron artefacts found at archaeological sites, and their usefulness in enabling archaeologists to date their finds, it has perhaps been inevitable that so much research has concentrated on these materials. But it has distorted our view of our ancestors, giving us the impression that these materials dominated their worlds, too. Hence the tripartite split of human prehistory into the ages of stone, bronze, and iron. In recent years, however, archaeologists have started to question this narrative, as they have begun to realise the importance that more perishable materials must always have played in people’s lives. Of these materials, the predominant one must be wood, which played a vital role in our ancestors’ lives even before they came down from the trees. Most of our tools, our weapons, our buildings, and our vehicles were made of wood, which also provided the fuel to keep ourselves warm and safe from predators, to cook our food, and even to manufacture more recent materials such as ceramics, glass, and metals. Hence the growing emergence of the phrase ‘The Wood Age’ to describe the preindustrial world.

Being both an archaeologist and a woodsman, the writer Max Adams is ideally suited to chronicling the role of wood in the human story. He has a vast knowledge of the practicalities of growing, harvesting, and using wood, and of prehistory and ancient history, and tells a great story. His book is packed with information about the many uses of the material, from the digging sticks used by early hunter-gatherers, through weapons, tools, wheels, ships, houses, and windmills, interspersed with reflections on forestry practices and environmental change.

The difficulty of writing a book about this topic is that it is just too all-encompassing. Since almost all aspects of life revolved around wood, the reader is apt to become overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information. Adams has sought to overcome this problem by using the conceit that his book describes an imaginary ‘virtual museum’ of the Wood Age: a vast open-air complex containing all aspects of wood-use and staffed by experts in ancient and modern woodcrafts. As in many museums, the exhibits and the stories that surround them are arranged together in loosely connected sections with names such as ‘frameworks’ and ‘cutting edge’. The reader is invited to browse through the book in any order, as a museum visitor would walk through a real museum, and make up their own minds about what story the museum conveys. This works well up to a point, but there are downsides. It means that information is duplicated throughout the book, and without an overarching theme – chronology or geography, for instance – the reader is all too apt to miss important trends in human progress. How wheeled vehicles and plank ships could only be built after metal woodworking tools had enabled precise carpentry, for example, and why these important inventions were never adopted in the New World. Written in florid prose reminiscent of nature writing, precision is also too often sacrificed for poetic effect, and the reader can get lost within the sentences. The worry is that, without the assumed expertise in woodmanship and carpentry, even most archaeologists would struggle to link Adams’s many ideas together to build up a broad picture of the Wood Age world. Like a real museum, it would take many visits to appreciate in detail how our ancestors’ skills and wood- use have shaped our history.

Perhaps the best thing, in this respect, are the delightful drawings on the inside cover of the book, showing a map of the museum and the wide range of wooden artefacts on display. The reader is advised to look at these before dipping into the book. I hope it will help many archaeologists realise just how important wood has been and continues to be in our world, and that there was much more to prehistoric life than flint-knapping.

The Museum of the Wood Age by Max Adams 
Apollo, £27.99 
ISBN 978-1788543507