Fuelish Concerns in Old Europe

I’ve been doing some research reading about the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture of the Danube watershed for K-Familiar (and possibly L-Familiar as well). This society was dubbed “Old Europe” by an early researcher, and the name stuck even though most of her cultural theories have been set aside. (5000-2700 BC/BCE).

Note how it includes the edges of the Carpathian Mountains. Fair Use under Creative Commons: https://www.ancientpages.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/cucutenitrypillianculture.jpg

What intrigued me, and makes me start reaching for a notepad and calculator, is the sheer quantities of wood these people must have used, especially in the later phases of their cultural development. They needed wood for tools, for fuel for cooking and for making pottery (lots and lots of pottery), for building houses, for baking the houses, for burning down the houses—

Yes, for baking the houses after they were built, and then every 50-60 years or so, burning everything down to the ground and moving. We’re taking settlements that could be several hundred acres. The biggest one was over a square mile (300 hectares, 740 acres or so) large. And it got burned to the ground just like all the others. Archaeologists have a lot of ideas about why the places got torched every three generations, starting with “sanitation” and then going from there. In the later phases, when the place burned, it was abandoned for at least a hundred years or so, then people came back to the area, sometimes.

Each house had an oven. Instead of communal ovens used by several families, which often happens when you have limited fuel, each house had an oven. Most houses that have been excavated seem to have been two-storey, with the oven (!) sometimes being on that upper floor, along with an altar, and other structures. The oven could have been used for firing pottery, but the heat needed for that is far greater than the heat for cooking, and some villages seem to have specialized in pottery making or tool making.

Some archaeologists believe that the house was built of logs with clay inside and out, or wattle covered with clay inside out, and “baked,” with a fire kept going inside the structure to harden and toughen the clay surface. That’s a lot of fuel, and not everyone agrees with this theory. Then, 50 years or so later, baked or not, the entire place got burned to the ground. In some areas, people rebuilt on top of the old settlement. In others, they relocated, because the local resources had been exhausted.

Why did this culture come to an end? Some scholars, lead by Marjia Gimbutas, thought that the Indo-European peoples moving west off the steppes had done in the peaceful, matriarchal, egalitarian Old European farmers. Her interpretation has been set aside in large part, and climatic shifts as the Atlantic Climate Phase/ Altithermal came to an end and wetter, colder, more irregular weather made farming much riskier, as well as turning the river valleys into swamps. By 2000 BC/BCE the peoples had dispersed and the culture vanished, with nary a trace left except perhaps, maybe in some of the languages in the region. Maybe.

The point is, these folks used lots, and lots, and lots of wood. Enough that I sort of wonder if they deforested themselves into a corner, and as rainfall became more erratic, erosion increased as well, which led to the shallowing of streams and rivers, which increases flooding and carries off more and more bare top soil, and . . . And then the worst drought Europe probably had seen in thousands of years hit, lasting four hundred years or so. Farming is not going to be viable any longer. Signs of cultural blending had begun appearing before that, but it looks like the drought finished off the farmers.

Anyway, it’s a neat archaeological area to read up on, and sparks [pun intended] all sorts of questions, including “What might people be willing to do, if they are desperate, and how much power might reside in the remains of the implements of whatever they did?”


28 thoughts on “Fuelish Concerns in Old Europe

  1. I have to find some old notes – an engineering prof once figured (order of magnitude) that you could fuel a small power plant with wood, but it required a 20 mi radius area with constant cutting and reforestation for continuous operation. That’s with more modern forestry management techniques. If you’re still making some of those connections but use wood on a vast scale, your culture might not be ale to keep up on deliberate re-foresting. Later, desperate times call for desperate or unspeakable measures.

    For Familiar purposes, that’s an interesting question to ask, and an ominous question to ask about those extra ovens/unspeakables and any artifacts related. The answer in Tay-speak: “because you’re here to make it finally stop! … Oh, is that another mango?”

    • Yup, pretty much – industrial operations use LOTS of fuel.
      Growing up, I learned about the ‘bog iron’ operations in colonial New Jersey. A typical operation consumed 1,000 acres of wood for charcoal each year. They rotated through 20,000 acres over a 20 year period, using fast growing pine (and lots of slave labor).
      In theory it was a sustainable operations; I’m not sure how sustainable it was in practice when flooding, sandy soil, uneven demand, etc were factored in.

  2. Three generations is long enough to build up your manpower sufficiently to have a petty little war with your neighbors. And to deplete the local resources with a growing population.

    • “Chop and burn” farming, with a century to let the forest replenish, makes sense. Much longer time scale than the tropics. Wonder if they left any ‘monarch’ trees, 500 yrs size, as landmarks or sacred groves? One more for the research stack. I learn more here as adjuncts to urban fantasy writing, than I did in some college courses. It’s more fun, too.

      Our hostess wins again. 🙂

  3. My deceased Grandfather who lived in Northern Minnesota used to go through a full cord of wood every winter. Granted, most of it was birch of 4 – 8 inch diameter, but still, even using chainsaw, come-a-long, garden tractor with trailer, that was still a LOT of wood and every day each summer, he and I would be cutting down 3 or 4 birch or oak (similar diameter) between 25 – 45 feet, removing branches, cutting into logs, and hauling them back to the woodpile. Still miss the old grouch. Not so much the wood cutting tho.

      • The humidity level around where he lived was usually so low in winter, you could go out with long sleeved shirt, jeans, boots on (no outer layer) and be good for 10 minutes or so before you began to feel cold. I don’t know if you could do that in Ohio in winter. I also don’t know exactly how much wood he really used. the one full cord I mentioned was what he said he used. All I can tell you is every summer when I was visiting, every day we were out cutting wood.

  4. In Dawn of Man, one of the areas I have to be careful of is not deforesting the area around my village.

  5. Our place east of the Cascades is similar. Founded as a mill-site with company town around 1920, the town was shut down in 1950 and the land sold off in 1970. Somewhere (mid-late 1960s?) the shanties and other buildings were demolished, largely by burning. We get the occasional artifact and a mess of rusted out cans, but there’s little sign of the old company town to the casual observer.

    Lodgepole pine was the big lumbering species, but we have a fair amount of Ponderosa (and used to have a lot of Juniper). Any contents of manure piles and outhouse pits have fully composted in the interim. Trees grow at varying rates; one 1′ diameter Pondo was 70 years old, while 50 year old Junipers were 3′ in diameter.

    My (not-so) SWAG is the burning the town gave time for reforestation and for the middens to self-sanitize by composting. The rubble field would be a pretty good indication that the area had been abandoned for a while.

  6. This was probably before coppicing, so they were cutting down the entire tree – wonder how fast they were planning on regrowth? Drought would not only wipe out the crops, it’d set the stage for forest fires, which would wipe out the wood… I wonder, given the settlements were deliberately burned, if we could see if they were trying to reuse forest-fire-killed trees or not.

    Then again, this is stone age, and fire-hardened wood and stone axe would not be the most…pleasant combination.

    • Late Stone and Copper/ Chalcolithic (Eastern European intermediate between Neolithic and Bronze Age.) They had some copper tools, and a very, very few arsenical bronze things at the very end of the culture’s period.

  7. The deforestation theory matches some of the Meso-American culture theories. There, it has been thought that deforestation was brought about by burning the wood to get ash and quicklime for the mortar and gypsum needed for constructing their cities.

  8. People in the Olden Days apparently used a lot more salt than we do, because of the need to preserve food in an era without refrigeration. I’ve read that vast quantities of wood were used for the distillation of seawater in order to get the salt. In some places, aquaducts were built to bring the water to where the wood was, which was a lot easier than hauling the wood to where the water was.

    • Yes. Not distillation per se, but boiling in large open pans. Something similar was used inland at Schwabisch Hall and other places with brine springs.

      • Speaking of which, is it safe to ask about White Gold and Empire? (Prepares evacuation plan for possible incoming Irritated Kitty Paw)

        • It’s on the back burner at the moment. I’m almost done with K-Familiar, so I’ll try to work on White Gold, once Day Job settles into a bit more of a routine. At the moment I’m doing a lot of brush-fire mitigation, in addition to teaching and trying to write at least a few hundred words a day.

          • Brush-fire mitigation. Ah, yes. I have a burning (sorry about that, Chief) need to rake a metric buttload of pine needles before the next lightning event.

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