Britain’s oldest piece of carved wood discovered in layer of peat

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A large chunk of oak, preserved and stained black by its millennia in a layer of Berkshire peat, has been revealed as the oldest piece of carved wood in Britain, dated to more than 6,000 years ago, making it 2,000 years older than Stonehenge.

The metre-long piece of timber, with enigmatic carvings which have been compared to designs on ancient pottery, was found by chance on a building site in the village of Boxford in Berkshire. It has now been dated by experts from Historic England, with scientists from the Nottingham tree-ring dating laboratory, and the Centre for Isotope Research at the university of Groningen, to between 4,640 BC and 4,605 BC, making it 500 years older than the only other known example of late Mesolithic decoratively carved wood, found near Maerdy in Wales.

The scientists used a combination of radiocarbon dating, and tree ring dating of a slice of the wood, which together give a 95% probability of the date.

The site owner Derek Fawcett, a retired surgeon who spotted the timber at the bottom of a foundation trench as builders were working on a new outbuilding on his land four years ago, described the find as “rather surprising”. He has been working with Historic England and a local history project since the find four years ago, and is donating it to the West Berkshire Museum once conservation work is complete. There are also plans to display the carving on temporary loan to the heritage centre in the village. Many archaeological finds from the Bronze Age to Roman and Saxon have been made in the area around the village on the banks of the river Lambourn, including a spectacular Roman mosaic floor found in 2017.

The timber was found in a waterlogged layer, 1.5 metres below the present ground level. Fawcett, who immediately contacted the county archaeologist Sarah Orr, said: “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.”

The donation is announced to mark Museums Week, from June 5-11. Janine Fox, the curator of the West Berkshire museum, described it as “a brilliant find”, which they will be excited to display. “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.”

The Historic England experts compare the carved marks to decoration on early Neolithic pottery—and with the eye of faith, to markings representing body decoration on the Shigir Idol, found in the Ural Mountains in Russia, and at 12,500 years old, the oldest known piece of carved wood in the world.

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