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
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 work.
Coles, J.M., The World's Oldest Road. Scientific American,
November 1989, pp. 100-106.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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