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The Use and Character of Wood in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 May 2014

J. M. Coles
Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge
S. V. E. Heal
Darwin College, Cambridge
B. J. Orme
Department of History, University of Exeter


Wood was one of early man's most valuable and important raw materials. It furnished him with shelter, heat and a range of tools and weapons necessary for his survival. It was perhaps the first material to be employed for tools, even before stone was actively worked, yet wood hardly figures in the minds of many archaeologists, and it plays no part in the traditional, outmoded but convenient Three Age system of European Prehistory: Stone-Bronze-Iron. Yet there is hardly a tool or weapon used by Stone Age, Bronze Age or Iron Age man or woman which did not have a wooden part, and it is the purpose of this paper to point out the wealth of information that is available, or could be obtained, from studies of wooden artifacts.

The reason for neglect of such studies is obvious. Wood is perishable; it decays if left exposed, it is easily broken, it burns to nothing, it rots in the soil, it loses its surface in moving water. Its survival for long periods of time is exceptional, and requires certain conditions of deliberate or accidental burial. Yet wood as a fact and a feature of prehistoric economy cannot be disputed. Without the survival of wooden remains, our knowledge of the Neolithic and Bronze Age lake-side settlements in Switzerland would be quartered, and our information about the Iron Age villages at Glastonbury and Biskupin would be substantially reduced. Only in circumstances where conditions are exceptionally favourable has wood survived in an identifiable state, and in these situations it can tell us much about economic life. Grahame Clark expressed the view long ago that ‘less attention (should be) paid to amassing residual fossils from sites unfavourable to the survival of the organic materials which play so important a part in the economy of simple societies, and more to exploring sites where these materials are likely to survive’ (Clark 1940, 58).

Research Article
Copyright © The Prehistoric Society 1978

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