Today, we walk a six-thousand-year-old highway. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Roman roads loom large in
legend and song! We forget there was ever anything
before them. But archaeologist John Coles tells
about a strange road, far older.
In 1970, Raymond Sweet was cleaning drainage
ditches in a peat bog near Bristol, England. Deep
in the peat, he struck a wooden plank. It was the
wrong thing in the wrong place. He took it to Coles
at Cambridge University. Coles dated it at 4000
B.C. A major dig was begun, and the full story
began to come clear. The trail of wood went on and
on, from what had been one island in the fen to
another -- over a mile away.
The wood was well preserved. This strange structure
had been used for a generation. Then reeds closed
in, and peat quickly formed over it. The peat was
acidic enough to kill the bacteria that degrade
wood. As archaeologists uncovered it, the shape of
the thing emerged.
Six thousand years ago, Neolithic engineers needed
to get back and forth across the swamp below their
village. They contrived a long walkway. First they
laid a mile-long rail of four-inch-diameter poles
on the underwater soil. Then they pounded five-foot
pegs into the ground at a 45-degree angle. These
pegs criss-crossed over the poles. They formed
X-shaped brackets every few feet. The poles carried
their weight. Finally wide planks were fitted into
the upper arms of the X. The planks formed a
walkway a foot above the water.
It was quite a piece of work for people still in
the Stone Age. The children of these engineers
would build Stonehenge nearby, but not for another
two thousand years. Tool-marks on the wood show a
fine command of carpentry. These boards were formed
by people with better tools than we would have
guessed. It took a very sophisticated
wood-splitting technique to make those planks.
Excavation even turned up surveyor's stakes that'd
been used to lay out the path for its builders.
There's more. Artifacts dropped along the walkway
show that these not-so-primitive people made
pottery, that they'd invented glue, and that they
traded with distant tribes for flint. The most
startling artifact is an axehead shaped from
European jade. These forgotten people clearly owned
some mysteries that will remain mysterious.
But, most important, this path reveals social
cohesion. It tells us that these ancestors could
put their wills and minds together and produce a
huge unique project for the common good -- six
thousand years ago.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Coles, J.M., The World's Oldest Road.
Scientific American, November 1989, pp.
This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 2584.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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