Oldest Decoratively Carved Wood in Britain Found During Building Project
A large piece of wood discovered by chance, lying in peat in excellent condition during the construction of a workshop in Boxford, Berkshire, has been identified by Historic England as being more than 6,000 years old, making it the oldest decoratively carved wood in Britain. It was carved 2,000 years before Stonehenge was built and 4,500 years before the Romans came to Britain.
Experts from Historic England, working with scientists from Nottingham Tree-ring Dating Laboratory and The Centre for Isotope Research, University of Groningen, carried out radiocarbon dating of a timber slice from the wood that was dissected into individual tree-rings. The data shows there is a 95 per cent probability that this piece of wood dates to around 4640 to 4605 BC.
It is 500 years older than the only other known decoratively carved timber in Britain discovered near Maerdy in Wales, which dates to the Late Mesolithic/Early Neolithic period (around 4270 to 4000 BC).
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said:
“It’s remarkable that by doing routine building work, a piece of modest-looking decorative wood turns out to be the oldest ever found in Britain. This exciting find has helped to shine new light on our distant past and we’re grateful to the landowner for recognising its significance. Amazing discoveries like these remind us of the power of archaeology to uncover the hidden narratives that connect us to our roots.”
It was a rather surprising find at the bottom of a trench dug for foundations for a new building. It was clearly very old and appeared well preserved in peat. After hosing it down, we saw that it had markings that appeared unnatural and possibly man-made. I have been working with Historic England and the Boxford History Project since I found it, now over four years ago, while radiocarbon dating of the wood was carried out.
The Boxford Timber
The piece of waterlogged carved oak is one metre long, 0.42 metres wide and 0.2 metres thick and was discovered by landowner Derek Fawcett during groundworks for the building of a workshop. It was found approximately 1.5 metres (5 foot) below the surface not far from the present course of the River Lambourn in a layer of peat. Peat can preserve organic materials like wood over thousands of years because the normal processes of decay are slowed right down due to a lack of oxygen within the peat.
The timber was removed and later that day it was cleaned and found to have some markings that did not appear to be natural.
The purpose of the markings on this piece of timber is not known, but they are reminiscent of the decoration seen in early Neolithic pottery and are also believed to be similar to the body decoration on the Shigir Idol – a wooden sculpture found in the Ural Mountains of Russia which, at over 12,000 years old, is believed to be the oldest example of carved wood in the world.
After being notified of the find in 2019, West Berkshire Council’s archaeologist Sarah Orr contacted Historic England for expert advice. It is now being conserved at Historic England’s science facility in Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth.
We are very grateful to the landowner for alerting us to this unexpected discovery, and to Historic England for providing the specialist analysis which has revealed the astonishingly early date of this mysterious artefact. Whilst West Berkshire has long been known in archaeological circles as nationally important for its Middle Stone Age sites, these are predominantly in the Kennet Valley and are Early Mesolithic. The Boxford timber by contrast was found preserved in peat by the River Lambourn and dates from the end of this prehistoric period of hunter-gatherer lifestyle, adding to the significance of this component of our district’s historic environment.
To coincide with Museums Week (5 to 11 June), Derek Fawcett has donated the timber to the West Berkshire Museum in Newbury where it will eventually go on display.
The museum is also working with the Boxford History Project to arrange for the timber to go on loan to the Boxford village heritage centre.
This is a brilliant find and we are very excited at the prospect of displaying this incredible artefact at the Museum, although it won’t be ready to show for some time yet. Further study may reveal more about the markings on the oak and its context, but its unearthing gives us perspective on the long rich heritage of West Berkshire, and a tangible link to humans who lived in this area long before any towns and villages had been created.