Neolithic Wooden Wells (Germany)

Willy Tegel et al. Early Neolithic Water Wells
Reveal the World’s Oldest Wood Architecture. PLoS ONE 2012.
Open access Image:

Neolithic wooden wells from Germany
We were fascinated by this publishing online of these several wooden wells found in Germany that date to the Neolithic. We had hoped to see them on our last trip to Germany, but were not able to make the area in daylight. Of course we’re not even sure where they are located or if they could be visited. They have been dated by archaeologists to the Neolithic and reveal information about the first farming practices in the area as well as influenced around Europe, the construction methodology used in constructing them, and paleo-climatic data from the tree rings from timbers recovered from them.

Around 12,000 B.P. (Before Present), environmental and geologic changes in the landscape had changed Central Europe from “steppes” into dense woodlands, creating a warmer and wetter climate. During the 6th century (B.C.E.), cultures and people began to show signs of staying in one place, choosing a more sedentary lifestyle as opposed to nomadic travels. Agriculture took root and with it came farming, cultivation, caretaking of livestock, production of tools and ceramics, as well as exploiting the woodlands for its timber. This was the start of the Neolithic period when cultures began to change their natural environment into a cultural landscape.

Permanent buildings began to appear, storage facilities, encampments, fortifications, and villages constructed. The manufacture of tools became specialized and techniques used in working with wood were optimized. The first Central European farmers most likely came from the Carpathian basin and Balkan peninsula around 7,500 years ago leaving a uniform archaeological record of structures and tools including longhouses, pottery, and stone tools.

The decorated pottery at this time was a particular type that archaeologists call the Linear Pottery Culture (LBK). Settlements sprang up across the fertile loess regions and unfortunately due to a lack of preserved organic artifacts not much is known on how they farmed, their skills, and the subsistence strategies of the time. Today, current archaeological evidence is showing some light.

Figure 1 above is one of Willy Tegel’s images demonstrating the wooden well constructions and Neolithization. He shows LBK wells from (A) Eythra 1, (B) Eythra 2, (C) Brodau 1, and (D) Altscherbitz. (E) Central European loess distribution with the superimposed phases of expansion of the LBK (lines), based on Carbon 14 dates, and the maximum extension of the LBK (light blue) along with the 12 known early Neolithic wells featuring waterlogged wood preservation. (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051374.g001) He states in his research that a precise chronological framework beyond radiocarbon dates and LBK pottery typology is required for a better understanding of the Neolithization process.

Below he demonstrates tree-ring dating samples from 151 oak timbers abstracted from four water well constructions in Altscherbitz, brodau, and Eythra. The individual ring width measurements cover 371 years from between 5469 to 5098 BCE originating from at least 46 mature trees having an individual felling date of wells A, B, E1 and E2 correspond to construction activities in 5099, at 5190±10, in 5098 and after 5206 BC, respectively (Figure 2). (See Willy Tegel research)

Willy Tegel et al. Early Neolithic Water Wells
Reveal the World’s Oldest Wood Architecture. PLoS ONE 2012.
Open access Image:

Figure 2. Tree-ring samples and chronologies. (A) Temporal distribution of 147 oak ring-width series, indicating the lengths of the individual tree-ring sequences, and the youngest felling date per well construction, based on the presence of waney edges (annually precise) or sapwood (±10 years). The inset shows a 3D reconstruction of the wooden lining of the well from Altscherbitz displaying each tree using a different color. (B) The Expressed Population Signal (dotted line grey) and the inter-series correlation (dotted line black) calculated over 50 years lagged by 25 years along all of the individual samples. (C) Single ring width measurements (green) and their mean (red). (D) Absolute dating of the new Saxon oak chronology (red) against the reference chronology from the Main River Valley [30] after 10-year low-pass filtering (r = correlation coefficient, TV = T-value, GL = Gleichläufigkeit). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051374.g002. (Willy Tegel et al. Early Neolithic Water Wells Reveal the World’s Oldest Wood Architecture. PLoS ONE 2012. Open access Image:

These timbers recovered show that the mature oak trees used in the construction by early Neolithic farmers dated up to 300 years old and measured a maximum of a meter in diameter. These were cut with transversely hafted bladed stone adzes cutting just about the breast height of the farmer. Based on ethnological evidence, Tegel stated the logging techniques could be reconstructed pretty accurately by splitting the logs first in half with wooden wedges hammered in using wooden mauls as is a common practice since prehistoric times. Evidence on the timbers shows the log halves were cut to their final length with the adzes and use of burning charcoals to mold by fire, as found in commonplace use with Neolithic log boat construction methodology. The final timbers came from radial or tangential splitting from the trimmed halves, smoothed using adzes, and boards made for use in construction.

Figure 3: Willy Tegel et al. Early Neolithic Water Wells
Reveal the World’s Oldest Wood Architecture. PLoS ONE 2012.
Open access Image:

Figure 3. Charred end-grain surfaces at terminal ends of oak timbers from well A (A, B). The timbers were cut to length using fire. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051374.g003

There were found to be two different types of linings used around the wells excavated, and these were assembled into the construction pits reaching down to the ground level as deep as seven meters. The first kind was a chest-like well lining using timber logs and the second a tube-like well lining using hollowed trunk sections. In Well B, a chest-like construction in the well stabilized the construction pit before a hollowed trunk was inserted.

The chest-like well linings were built using notched timbers that were either cogged or interlocked at their corner joints. Some rested on basal frames constructed with mortise and tenon joints, and Well A extended beyond the outer face of the joined timbers perforated and keyed by wooden wedges.

Fig. 4: Willy Tegel et al. Early Neolithic Water Wells
Reveal the World’s Oldest Wood Architecture. PLoS ONE 2012.
Open access Image:

Figure 4: Early Neolithic craftsmanship from well A. 3D laser rendering of (A) a timber bearing tool marks on the surface, (B) various timbers with cogging joints. (C) 3D model of the well lining set-up using laser images. (D) Sketch of the base frame with wedged tusk tenon joints and the frame with interlocked corner joints.

Figure 5: Willy Tegel et al. Early Neolithic Water Wells
Reveal the World’s Oldest Wood Architecture. PLoS ONE 2012.
Open access Image:

Figure 5. Basal frame construction of well A. (A) Wedged tusk tenon joint. (B) 3D laser rendering of the basal frame. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051374.g005.

The Well known as “Well A” was found at the margin of an LBK settlement consisting of approximately 100 longhouses and a cemetery with roughly 24 graves. This well’s lumber had exceptional preservation in its lining, with 134 timbers (20 or more tree-rings) and they dated 47 timbers from the log construction, 72 from the construction pit, and 5 wooden remains from internal deposits – all of which came from 13 individual oaks harvested in 5102 BCE.

These trees were radially and tangentially split into well-shaped beams. A small plank from the construction pit dated to 5099 BCE and defines the initial construction onset. The internal backfill contained a small board dating at 5087±10 BCE suggesting the well wasn’t used long though could have been a reused board.

Figure 6: Willy Tegel et al. Early Neolithic Water Wells
Reveal the World’s Oldest Wood Architecture. PLoS ONE 2012.
Open access Image:

Figure 6. Finds from the fill of well A. (A) Well A during excavation. Within the square wooden lining, a dense deposition of pottery consisting of intact and broken vessels has been uncovered. (B) Selection of intact and restored pots representative of the ceramic spectrum of the LBK, consisting of jars, necked vessels, and bowls (to scale, photo-realistic renderings of laser scans). (C) Complete ear of Einkorn (Triticum monococcum, 70 mm in length).doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051374.g006.

Excavated around the well-lining (outside surrounding pit) dated 100 years older than the well lining demonstrating a long settlement activity of at least four generations before the well was constructed. Within the well were uncovered rich botanical remains shedding some light on environmental conditions and history as well as the Neolithic diet for this site. Staple foods were deduced from these remains consisting of two types of hulled wheat (Triticum monococcum) and Emer (Triticum dicoccum) (figure 6c above) It is believed the carbohydrates from the cereals were complimented with proteins from legumes, such as peas (Pisum sativum) and lentils (Lens culinaris), oils obtained from linseed (Linum usitatissimum) as well as Poppy (Papaver somniferum). Wild fruits were added to the diet including strawberries, sloe, apples, raspberries, and hazelnuts. Abundant remains of bladder cherry (Physalis alkekengi) and black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger).

Henbane has strong hallucinogenic properties as well as beneficial as a medicine suggesting ritual drug use. At the bottom of the well filled with sediment after abandonment was found over 25 complete LBK ceramic vessels (see Figure 6) as well as bone, stone, and flint tools. The decorations suggest the earlier phases of the LBK typology and these could have been offerings to the well, especially being complete pots. These researchers found that contrary to common belief, broken pottery wasn’t always discarded, but often mended with birch tar and used in this state before abandonment. Two of the vessels found at the bottom of the well were redecorated after mending, covered with a thin layer of birch tar with intricate patterns made of cut-out strips of birch bark pasted on. Tool marks found on the timbers match with typical early Neolithic ground stone adze use. Much was learned from the markings on the timbers as to wood construction and techniques.

The Neolithization of Central Europe coincided with the Holocene Climate Optimum occurring around 7500 years ago and supportive of agricultural success for these first farmers with their agriculture, forest clearing, and timber exploitation practices. According to the research by Willy Tegel, Rengert Elburg, Dietrich Hakelberg, Harald Stäuble, and Ulf Büntgen this study demonstrates that the first farmers were also the first carpenters dispelling the belief that complex wood construction techniques did not rely upon the invention of metal woodworking tools as the evidence found in these wells show that they could build sophisticated corner joints and log constructions for their massive water well linings. This also implies complex construction methods for the LBK longhouse architecture.

The full report can be found here:

Bibliography, Recommended Reading, and References:

  • Maju 12/20/2012 “Neolithic wooden wells from Germany” on Blog “For What They Were .. We Are”. Website referenced March 8, 2014, at
  • Tegel, Willy et al. (Rengert Elburg, Dietrich Hakelberg, Harald Stäuble, and Ulf Büntgen) 2012 Early Neolithic Water Wells
    Reveal the World’s Oldest Wood Architecture. PLoS ONE 2012: