A 6,000-year-old oak timber carved with a concentric oval pattern and zig-zag lines, recently discovered in the RhonddaValley, Mid Wales, is thought to be among the oldest decorative wood carvings known from Europe.
Found by Heritage Recording Services Wales during the construction of a wind farm near Maerdy, the 1.7m long timber had been preserved in a waterlogged peat deposit, together with 11 other unmarked pieces of wood.
With one end apparently deliberately rounded and the other tapering slightly, the timber has been interpreted as a post, possibly marking a locally significant site or a tribal boundary, or representing a votive offering. Radiocarbon dating has placed it in c.4270-4000 BC, in the late Mesolithic or early Neolithic period.
‘Most finds from this period consist of stone tools, so to have a decorative carving, on wood no less, is very exciting,’ said lead archaeologist Richard Scott Jones. ‘We all put bets on its age, and people suggested Dark Age, Iron Age — but no one imagined it would come back as Mesolithic. We have since shown it to a number of Neolithic and Mesolithic experts, and they say it is a unique discovery.’
He added: ‘This period marks the transition between mobile hunter-gatherer groups and sedentary settlements. The timber was found by a stream edge on a small flat plateau, and if it is a post, it was probably marking something; maybe a sacred site, or a pool, or a nearby hunting ground — there is an ancient lakebed, which could have attracted animals, just a stone’s throw away — or some kind of boundary.’
Similar abstract patterns are known from Neolithic pottery, and from standing stones such as those at the Gavrinis passage grave in Brittany, or, closer to home, at Barclodiad y Gawres, Anglesey, Richard said.
Due to the rarity of such decorations surviving on ancient timbers, however, the team sent the oak timber to experts from the University of Wales Trinity St David, and Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust, to confirm that the markings were manmade.
‘We wondered if the lines could have been created by the larvae of oak bark beetles, but after consultation with palaeoentomologists, we are happy that these are not burrowing channels,’ said Richard.
He added: ‘As the timber is about 100 years older than the deposit in which it was found, this may suggest that the oak timber had been brought to the spot deliberately, and perhaps carved on site. If so, then that is a lot of energy to expend, which may indicate that the markings have a special purpose, rather than casual whittling.’
The oak timber is currently undergoing conservation with York Archaeological Trust, where it is expected to remain until 2014.
All images: Richard Scott Jones