A metre-long piece of timber dating back to the late Mesolithic era, 2000 years before Stonehenge was built and 4500 years before the Romans came to Britain, has been found in a trench dug for a workshop in Berkshire by retired surgeon Derek Fawcett.
“To say it was a stroke of luck is an understatement,” Fawcett said.
“Historic England, the agency that cares for England’s historic environment, said it was an ‘amazing’ discovery.”
When contractors called him over, Fawcett hoped to pursue his new retirement hobby of wood-turning in his new workshop.
“They asked me to look at something they had pulled out of a hole in the ground,” he said. “It looked like a big stump of wood. I wondered if I could turn it into some nice bowls.”
After hosing it down, Fawcett noticed curious markings on the piece.
“I could see they were possibly man-made. I recognised straight away that this was something unusual.”
Fawcett contacted a local archaeologist, who in turn contacted Historic England. Its experts, working with scientists from the Nottingham Tree-ring Dating Laboratory and the Centre for Isotope Research at the University of Groningen, carried out radiocarbon dating of a timber slice from the wood.
They concluded there was a 95% probability that the piece of wood dated between 4640 BC and 4605 BC – created around 2,000 years before Stonehenge.
That made it 500 years older than the only other known decoratively carved timber discovered in Britain, found near Maerdy in Wales and dating to the late Mesolithic/early Neolithic period (4270BC – 4000BC).
During this time, around 4600 BC, Britons were still nomadic hunter-gatherers.
The piece is 1 metre long, 42 cm wide and 20 cm thick.
Historic England said the purpose of the markings was unknown. Still, they were reminiscent of decoration seen in early Neolithic pottery. They were also believed to be similar to decoration on the Shigir Idol – a wooden sculpture found in the Ural Mountains of Russia that, at 12,500 years old, is the oldest example of carved wood in the world.
Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, said: “It’s remarkable that by doing routine building work, a piece of modest-looking worked wood turns out to be the oldest ever found in Britain.
“This exciting find has helped to shine new light on our distant past and we’re grateful to the landowner for recognising its significance.
“Amazing discoveries like these remind us of the power of archaeology to uncover the hidden narratives that connect us to our roots.”
Derek Fawcett has donated the piece to the West Berkshire Museum in Newbury where it will go on display.