Oldest decoratively carved wood in Britain found in peat

A piece of oak found in a peat layer during construction work has been radiocarbon dated to between 4640 and 4605 B.C., making it the oldest decoratively carved wood in Britain. It predates the previous record-holder, an oak post carved with wave and eye shapes found in Maerdy, Wales, by 400 years.

The timber was discovered in 2019 by landowner and retired urological surgeon Derek Fawcett in a trench he had dug for the foundations of a new workshop on his property in Boxford, West Berkshire. It was recovered about five feet beneath the land surface from a paleochannel inside a peat layer. The anaerobic environment of peat preserved the wood for thousands of years.

After it was hosed off, carved markings emerged on several of the faces, including 10 cut notches on one long side and finer notches spaced further apart on the other long side. Fawcett reported the discovery to West Berkshire Council archaeologists who in turn consulted experts at Historic England to analyze the artifact.

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.

Janine Lewis, Executive Member for Culture and Leisure, West Berkshire:

“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.”

Derek Fawcett has donated the timber to the West Berkshire Museum in Newbury. When study and conservation is complete, the wood will go on display there.