Restorers use sugar to preserve 7000-year-old prehistoric well

Holzbrunnen aus der Jungsteinzeit (Foto: Ondřej Wolf, Archiv des Tschechischen Rundfunks)

Czech archaeologists are using plain white sugar to preserve what may be the oldest wooden structure ever discovered in Europe – a water well made of oak trees felled some 7,000 years ago. The well was unearthed earlier this year during the construction of the D35 highway as an isolated find, bearing marks of construction techniques used in the Bronze and Iron ages.

Photo: Ondřej Wolf / Czech Radio

The discovery of remnants of a wooden water-well thousands of years old was a rare find that had archaeologists scrambling to comb the site. However no signs of a settlement were found in the vicinity and archaeologists believe the well was an isolated construction that most likely served a number of settlements located at some distance. The well was preserved due to the high level of underground water in the area.

Tests on the wooden planks showed that the well was made of oak trees felled some 7,000 years ago. Jaroslav Peška, head of the Archaeological Centre in Olomouc explains.

Photo: archive of Archaeological Centre in Olomouc
“According to our findings, based particularly on dendro-chronological data we can say that the tree trunks for the wood used were felled in the years 5255 and 5256 BC. The rings on the trunks enable us to give a precise estimate, give and take one year, as to when the trees were felled.”

So who were the people who used this well? Jaroslav Peška again:

“We believe it was used by settlers during what we call the Neolithic Revolution, during a transition from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlements. These people likely built simply-structured houses and domesticated animals. And they were skilled at making ceramic objects. The construction of this well is unique. It bears marks of construction techniques used in the Bronze and Iron ages and even the Roman Age. We had no idea that the first farmers, who only had tools made of stone, bones, horns, or wood, were able to process the surface of felled trunks with such precision.”

Photo: archive of Archaeological Centre in Olomouc
The well was the first of its kind unearthed in one piece, together with a piece of animal horn, the bones of dead birds and a ceramic bowl. According to experts the well was only preserved because it had been underwater for centuries. If they had let it dry out, the well would have been destroyed. That is why experts replaced the water with a widely-used conservation agent - plain white sugar. Jaroslav Peška explains:

“The wooden planks are submerged in this sucrose solution and will stay there for several months. During that time the damaged cellular structure of the wood will be replaced by sucrose, whose chemical composition is similar to cellulose in wood. After that it will be fixated and only then can the well be displayed in the Pardubice Museum as earlier agreed. Altogether, the restoration process should take about two years.”