Oldest decoratively carved wood in Britain identified

A large piece of oak, found in Boxford, Berkshire in 2019 and dated to the late Mesolithic period, has been identified as the oldest decoratively carved wood currently known from Britain.

The wood was discovered in a layer of peat approximately 1.5m below the surface, in a trench dug for a new workshop not far from the River Lambourn. Once the almost metre-long piece of oak had been cleaned, a series of carved markings were revealed. Recognising its significance, the landowner, Derek Fawcett, contacted West Berkshire Council’s senior archaeologist Sarah Orr.

The timber was then analysed by Nottingham Tree-Ring Dating Laboratory and the Centre for Isotope Research at the University of Groningen, which provided a radiocarbon date of 4640-4606 BC. Previously, the earliest-known such timber was from near Maerdy in Wales (see CA 283), dated to the late Mesolithic/early Neolithic period (4270-4000 BC) – 500 years younger than this new discovery.

A drawing of the markings made in the Mesolithic oak.

It is unclear what this wood was used for, but its markings are similar to some of those found on the Shigir Idol, which was discovered in the Ural Mountains of Russia and which, at 12,500 years old, is the earliest known example of carved wood in the world. They also somewhat resemble designs found on early Neolithic pottery from Britain.

Janine Lewis, West Berkshire’s Executive Member for Culture and Leisure, said: ‘Whilst West Berkshire… [is] nationally important for its Middle Stone Age sites, these are predominately 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 has donated the timber to the West Berkshire Museum, where it will be displayed once Historic England finish conservation. A 3D model can be viewed at https://sketchfab.com/3d-models/worked-timber-boxford-29a811f7a2d4402180750e74bbddd585.

Image: Historic England, Judith Dobie