A heavily gouged oak found in a peat bog is the oldest carved piece of wood in Britain and is more than 6,000 years old, experts say.
The mysterious markings were made by late Mesolithic people 2,000 years before Stonehenge – and 4,500 years before the Romans came to Britain.
The blackened, three-foot-long piece of wood was found embedded in peat during the construction of an outbuilding on an estate in the Berkshire village of Boxford.
Experts suggest the carvings are 500 years older than any other known Mesolithic carvings in Britain, discovered near Maerdy in Wales.
Historic England has dated the specimen to the Late Mesolithic period, which lasted between 4640 and 4605 BC.
The oldest decoratively worked wood in Britain has markings made over 6,000 years ago by Late Mesolithic people
It was discovered during the construction of an outbuilding on an estate in the historic Berkshire village of Boxford
The purpose of the marks on the wood is not known, but they resemble the decoration on early Neolithic pottery, experts suggest.
The markings also resemble those on the oldest piece of carving – a figurine known as the Shigir Idol – a wooden sculpture found in the Ural Mountains of Russia.
At 12,500 years old, Shigir Idol is believed to be the oldest example of wood carving in the world.
Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England said: ‘It is remarkable that through routine building work a piece of modest-looking decorative timber has turned out to be the oldest ever found in Britain.
“This exciting find has helped shed new light on our distant past and we are grateful to the landowner for recognizing its importance.
“Amazing discoveries like this remind us of the power of archeology to uncover the hidden stories that connect us to our roots.”
The swampy carved oak is a meter long, 0.42 meters wide and 0.2 meters thick.
Discovered during excavation work for the construction of a workshop, it was found about 5 feet below the surface, not far from the current course of the River Lambourn in a layer of peat.
Boxford is a village in Berkshire, northwest of Newbury, where the wood will eventually be displayed
The large timber was carved 2000 years before Stonehenge was built (2500 BC) and has been dated by Historic England to the late Mesolithic period (4640 BC – 4605 BC).
The purpose of the marks on the wood is not known, but they resemble the decoration seen on early Neolithic pottery, experts suggest
Peat is able to preserve organic materials such as wood for thousands of years because the normal processes of decay are slowed down by a lack of oxygen in the peat.
The wood was removed and later that day it was cleaned and found to have some marks that didn’t seem natural.
The landowner, Derek Fawcett, a retired urologic surgeon, said: ‘It was a rather surprising find at the bottom of a trench dug for the foundation of a new building.
“It was obviously very old and seemed well preserved in peat.
“After we hosed it down, we saw that it had markings that looked unnatural and possibly man-made.
‘I’ve been working with Historic England and the Boxford History Project since I found it, now over four years ago, radiocarbon dating the wood being carried out.’
In collaboration with scientists from the Nottingham Tree-ring Dating Laboratory and the Center for Isotope Research at the University of Groningen, Historic England performed radiocarbon dating of a piece of wood from the wood that was decomposed into individual tree rings.
The data showed that there is a 95 percent probability that this piece of wood dates to the Late Mesolithic (4640 to 4605 BC).
Experts from historic England, in collaboration with scientists from the Nottingham Tree-ring Dating Laboratory and the University of Groningen’s Center for Isotope Research, radiocarbon dated a piece of wood from the wood that was dissected into individual tree rings. The data shows that there is a 95 percent chance that this piece of wood dates from around 4640 to 4605 BC.
The wood has been donated to the West Berkshire Museum in Newbury, where it will eventually be displayed
After being made aware of the find in 2019, West Berkshire Council archaeologist Sarah Orr contacted Historic England for expert advice.
On the occasion of Museum Week (June 5-11), Derek Fawcett donated the wood to the West Berkshire Museum in Newbury, where it will eventually be displayed.
The museum also works with the Boxford History Project to ensure that the timber is on loan to the Boxford village heritage centre.
Further research may reveal more about the marks on the oak and its context, said Janine Fox, curator of the West Berkshire Museum.
The chemistry of peatlands
Peat bogs are anaerobic (oxygen-free) environments – a condition that prevents decay.
They are also heavy with tannins, a group of naturally occurring chemicals used in leather tanning.
The tannins preserve organic materials such as artifacts and even human bodies, including the soft tissues and digestive tract contents.
This means that soft parts of the body – such as skin, hair and stomach contents – are well preserved in bodies recovered from swamps.
The best preserved bodies – such as the woman from Huldremose, Grauballe Man and Tollund Man – have been found in raised bogs.
However, many other conditions must also be met to prevent microorganisms from breaking down the human body. The corpse should be sunk in water or dug into the ground and quickly covered.
In addition, the deposition of the body must take place when the swamp water is cold in winter or early spring, otherwise the process of decay may begin.
Archaeological excavations have also shown that some of the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age bog bodies were placed in ancient peat pits and the bodies were held in place with sticks or peat.
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica/National Museum of Denmark