Precious little is known about the Neolithic era in Britain—a problem most prominently exemplified by Stonehenge. Theories abound as to the origins of the 5,000-year-old structure, ranging from religious rituals to alien communication. The Neolithic people of Britain left behind no written records for archaeologists to pore over for clues.
But sometimes clues can come from unexpected places, as retired surgeon Derek Fawcett discovered four years ago. While digging a foundation for a workshop on his property in West Berkshire, 50 miles west of London, he uncovered a wood fragment, about three feet long, preserved in peat since Neolithic times.
“It was a rather surprising find at the bottom of a trench dug for foundations for a new building. It was clearly very old and appeared well preserved in peat. After hosing it down, we saw that it had markings that appeared unnatural and possibly man-made,” Fawcett says in a recent statement from Historic England, the government agency that coordinated the research on the artifact.
The Nottingham Tree-ring Dating Laboratory and the Center for Isotope Research at the University of Groningen worked in tandem to date the wood, which they placed at somewhere between 4640 to 4605 B.C.E. with 95 percent confidence.
That means that this artifact predates Stonehenge by about 2,000 years—the oldest wood carving ever discovered in England. David Keys of the Independent reports that excavations around Stonehenge in the 1960s led to a theory that “giant totem-pole-like timber obelisks” were erected on the spot before the current stones.
If such wood obelisks ever existed, this new find could indicate what they were like, writes Keys.
This artifact also bears resemblance to the former oldest wood carving found in Britain, a wooden post unearthed in south Wales in 2012.
Historic England also noted that the wood carries similar, possibly related, decoration to the Shigir Idol. First found by gold miners in the Ural Mountains of Russia in 1890, the Shigir Idol has been dated to 12,500 years ago, making it the oldest example of carved wood found anywhere.
In 2021, when a new round of dating revealed that true age of the Shigir Idol, the New York Times’ Franz Lidz reported that the decorations on the Shigir Idol in turn resemble those on Göbekli Tepe, an 11,000-year-old temple in modern-day Turkey.
Marcel Niekus, an archaeologist in the Netherlands with the Foundation for Stone Age Research, told the Times that the similarities between the Shigir Idol and Göbekli Tepe could help piece together the story of human migration spanning thousands of years of Neolithic history.
The geometric motifs that repeat across Europe in that period serve as "is evidence of long-distance contacts and a shared sign language over vast areas,” Niekus said.
And according to Historic England, the small, unassuming wooden artifact from West Berkshire could be the latest turn in that story.