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World’s Oldest Wood Structure, an Oak Well, Preserved in Sugar

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July 19, 2021 | Bill Esler

An oak structure built to cover a water well and dating back 7,000 years has been successfully preserved by researchers at a Czech university. The oak frame, built using four oak logs as corner posts and oak boards inserted for the four sides, was originally discovered in 2018 during a highway construction project near Ostrov, in the Czech Republic. It was carefully unearthed by archaeologists, then transported to the University of Pardubice.

Carbon dating determined the well had been built during the Neolithic period. It was disassembled into five parts which were immersed–rather unusually–into a sugar solution in plastic basins. University researchers consulted with experts across Europe before settling on the use of sugar as a preservative.

With no additives, crystal sugar works the best. A total of 700 one-kilo packets of sugar was poured into 700 liters of water. “Each of the parts was cleaned and immersed in the solution of sacharosis,” says Karol Bayer, vice-dean of the Faculty of Restoration. Unlike standard wood, the ancient oak components must be prevented from fully drying. If they dried, they would get deformed, and in fact destroyed.

For a long time, the restoration specialists considered various options to treat and preserve the well, so it could be displayed in the Museum of East Bohemia in Pardubice. “Never before have we have used sugar for preservation. That is why we discussed this option with specialists on wood preservation from the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague. The method used is the most convenient and least damaging one. Thanks to the method, the well is also preserved its original appearance,” says Bayer.

At first sight, the 7,000-year-old wood was in good, but fragile condition. “If you think of how old it is, the condition of the wood is very good; it is, however, broken, so we had to be extremely careful when handling it,” says Bayer. The Neolithic people must have had some previous experience since the oak wood used is very durable and has good resistance to decay. “This may explain why the well is in such a good condition,” says Bayer.

The restoration specialists were surprised at the quality of the woodworking. The structure of the well consists of grooved corner posts with inserted planks, essentially a mortise and tenon joint. So the well also is interesting from the joinery point of view.

“Up to now we thought that when the first farmers came to our territory, they used rudimentary methods. The well reveals, however, that they brought with them a complete set of carpentry tools,” says Petr Juřina, manager of Archaia, a company that cooperated with Olomouc archeologists on the excavations for the highway. “If you imagine that we are talking about a period seven thousand years ago, it is very well carved,” says Marek Laška, a restoration student who is responsible for the well now.

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