Reconstructing houses from the Stone Age
Leiden University archaeologists are reconstructing houses from the Stone Age, using only resources available during that period. This method offers surprising insights into the ingenuity of our distant ancestors, and challenges existing archaeological views.
Our Stone Age ancestors built their houses with stone axes and adzes. That may sound like a time-consuming and primitive process, but nothing could be further from the truth. “The people who lived ten thousand years ago were the same people as us. They could do just as much, and were just as clever,” says archaeologist Annemieke Verbaas. “They just happened lived in a different time and had to utilise other resources.” This fundamental insight is reinforced by Leiden University scientists Annelou van Gijn, Annemieke Verbaas and Diederik Pomstra and their students every time they build a Stone Age house with only resources from that era. Van Gijn and Verbaas are archaeologists, while Pomstra is a tool expert who has been fashioning Stone Age tools for many years.
Together with professional architects and students, they have built two prehistoric houses so far. The first house was built in 2012 in Horsterwold, near Zeewolde. The other house is located in the Archeologisch Educatief Erf in the Broekpolder in Vlaardingen.
Felling oaks with a stone axe
Reconstructing a house in an authentic way has several advantages. Verbaas: “Using this method, you quickly find out that the building process for houses was different from what we thought, largely because you are confronted with the characteristics of tools. For example: you might think that chopping down trees with a stone axe is very time-consuming. However, in practice it turns out that it only takes about twenty minutes to fell a tall oak.” This method also provides a guide for re-interpreting recovered traces of homes.
Another aim of the project is to document and analyse use-wear traces that are made on the reconstructed tools.
These marks can then be compared again to traces found on tools that have actually been recovered. Verbaas: “We see that the incisions made by a reconstructed stone axe become more slanted with use. We also see these same traces on real prehistoric axes. That is an eye opener. Archaeologists thought that these skewed heads on axe handles were perhaps random, or because of the size of the stone from which the axes were made. Through this kind of research, we find out that this is not the case; the slanted heads are formed by intensive use and grinding.”
Formative experience for students
The researchers involve students in the building projects whenever possible. Verbaas: “The projects are very valuable for them. First, on the level of content. I think you can count the number of archaeologists in the Netherlands on one hand who have actually chopped wood using a stone axe. You learn a lot by doing, and in future our students will be able to really imagine what it is like to work with different tools, so they can make worthwhile statements about it.” “And you also see what excellent learning experiences these are,” Pomstra adds. Students first need to get used to a stone axe. But once they’ve cut down a tree with a stone axe, they will get attached to their tool. That’s the word they chose themselves. They quickly notice how effective the object is and that it really is a ‘tool’. You can see them change their opinion right before your eyes. They learn a lot about cooperation and perseverance as well.”