A large shapeless chunk of oak about a metre long, found in a trench in Berkshire during building work, has been radiocarbon dated to 6,000 years ago The incisions still visible in the wood date from the Mesolithic Era, when Britons were still nomadic hunter-gatherers.
Dating from about 4600 BC, it is the oldest example of carved wood ever found in Britain and was created 2,000 years earlier than Stonehenge. Before this find, the earliest known decoratively carved timber in Britain was a piece found in South Wales, dating to the late Mesolithic – early Neolithic period between 4270 BC – 4000 BC.
Scans of the wood show a horizontal row of distinct notches, which appear to have been made by some kind of flint tool. Their significance is not known but they are similar to markings seen on early Neolithic pottery. Strangely, they are also similar to the decoration on the Shigir Idol, a sculpture found in the Ural Mountains of Russia. At 12,500 years old, this is believed to be the oldest example of carved wood in the world.
The UK discovery, unearthed not far from the River Lambourn in Boxford, was so well preserved because it was protected by a layer of peat. Dating the wood was not easy because the tree rings did not match any on record, forcing experts to resort to radiocarbon dating. Specialists confirmed that the wood most likely dates to between 4640 BC and 4605 BC.
Gill Campbell, head of Historic England’s Fort Cumberland Laboratories in Portsmouth, said: “This really changes our perceptions of the Mesolithic. We don’t think about them carving things out of wood, probably because wood so rarely survives”.
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. We’re grateful to the landowner for recognising its significance”.
The piece will eventually go on display at the West Berkshire Museum in Newbury.
Text Alun Harvey (from a report by Sarah Knapton, Science Editor of the Daily Telegraph (June 2023).