Unearthing an ‘idol’

Twyford, Buckinghamshire

This carved figurine was nearly mistaken for a degraded piece of wood when archaeologists found it buried in a boundary ditch near Twyford, Buckinghamshire, during work on the HS2 project. As the team from Infra Archaeology (working for HS2’s contractor, Fusion JV) continued excavating, though, they found that the 67cm-tall and 18cm-wide object bore intriguing human-like features, including a head (slightly rotated to the left), legs, and traces of what may be a representation of a tunic.

Prehistoric anthropomorphic items made of wood represent rare finds in British archaeology, possibly partly because their organic materials seldom survive. A wooden limb, perhaps a Roman votive offering, was discovered at the bottom of a well in Northampton in 2019, but the last ‘full’ figure to be unearthed – the ‘Dagenham Idol’, radiocarbon dated to c.2250 BC – was found 100 years ago, on the northern bank of the River Thames.

The Twyford figurine is missing its forearms and feet, but the anaerobic conditions of the waterlogged and clay-filled ditch stopped it from rotting away completely. ‘The preservation of details carved into the wood such as the hair and tunic really start to bring the individual depicted to life,’ said Iain Williamson, Archaeologist for Fusion JV.

The carving was found alongside fragments of pottery dating from AD 43-70, but its meaning remains obscure. ‘Who does the figure represent, what was its purpose, and why was it significant to the people living in this part of Buckinghamshire during the 1st century AD?’ Iain asked.

The figure, which could be interpreted as an early Roman gift to the gods, is now in the hands of York Archaeological Trust’s expert conservation team. A small fragment, found broken off in the ditch, has been sent for radiocarbon dating, and isotope analysis of the wood is under way to help determine its source.

Text: H Blair
Image: HS2 Ltd
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