Archaeologists Find Ultra-Rare Roman-Era Wooden Statue in Britain

In a waterlogged ditch in a field near the village of Twyford, Buckinghamshire, a team of experts working for the HS2 archaeological contractor Fusion JV were stunned but delighted to discover an exceptionally rare early Roman-era wooden statue. The Roman-era wooden statue was partially degraded but still a recognizable carved wooden statue of a male figure dressed in a tunic. The 26-inch (67-centimeter) tall and seven-inch (18-centimeter) wide statue is unmistakably Roman, which is shown by its unique clothing and distinctively Roman hat and hairstyle, among other revealing details.

Based on the style of dress, plus the carving procedures that were used, the archaeologists have tentatively dated the Roman-era wooden statue to sometime in the first century AD (the Roman conquest of Britain began in 43 AD and was completed by the year 87 AD). A few shards of pottery were found near the statue in the ditch, and their characteristics also suggest they came from a piece that was manufactured sometime in the mid-first century.

Views of the exceptionally rare Roman-era wooden statue found at the Twyford Buckinghamshire HS2 dig site. (HS2)

Views of the exceptionally rare Roman-era wooden statue found at the Twyford Buckinghamshire HS2 dig site. (HS2)

Rare Roman-era Wooden Statue Found in the Strangest Place

England’s ongoing HS2 light-rail construction project has opened new doorways of opportunity for archaeologists, who’ve been given free reign to launch excavations in areas of interest along the railway’s intended path. Dozens of fascinating sites have been uncovered and unearthed as a result of this activity, although the latest discovery definitely caught HS2 archaeologists by surprise.

Needless to say, HS2 archaeologists weren’t expecting to find such a rare and valuable artifact laying exposed in an open field. When they first spotted it in the ditch, they thought it was simply a degraded chunk of wood. Only on closer examination did they realize it was a carved wooden statue and that is was probably quite old.

“The amazing discovery of this wooden figure was totally unexpected, and the team did a great job of recovering it intact,” Fusion JV archaeologist Iain Williamson stated in an HS2 press release . “The preservation of details carved into the wood such as the hair and tunic really start to bring the individual depicted to life.”

Part of the surprise comes from the fact that such an ancient artifact was so well-preserved. Many of the finest features of the wooden statue were intact, defying the forces of nature that would normally have been expected to destroy it over such a long period time, nearly 2,000 years!

The cleaned Buckinghamshire HS2 Roman-era wooden statue. (HS2)

The cleaned Buckinghamshire HS2 Roman-era wooden statue. ( HS2)

The secret to the ancient artifact’s preservation can be found in the Buckinghamshire soil, which is quite rich in clay. Because clay-laded earth is largely impenetrable to oxygen, the rotting of wood trapped inside such soil is dramatically slowed, and that is why the 2,000-year-old Roman-era wooden statue retained most of its original features.

During Roman times, wooden figures of this type were often prepared as burial goods, or as gifts to the gods. That may be what this statue was intended to be, but since the artifact was found in isolation and not in a Roman cemetery the HS2 archaeologists aren’t sure what to make of it just yet.

“Not only is the survival of a wooden figure like this extremely rare for the Roman period in Britain , but it also raises new questions about this site,” Williamson explained. “Who does the wooden figure represent, what was it used for, and why was it significant to the people living in this part of Buckinghamshire during the first century AD?”

The current estimate of the statue’s age will be either verified or disproven soon. A small piece of the statue was found broken off in the ditch, and this piece has been sent to a laboratory for radiocarbon dating . Isotope analysis will also be performed, which may be able to identify where the wood used to make the statue originated.

The Dagenham idol is a wooden statue of a naked human figure, found in Dagenham, a town in East London, England in 1922. The statue has been carbon dated to around 2250 BC, during the late Neolithic period or early Bronze Age, making it one of the oldest human representations found in Europe. This image shows a replica of the Dagenham Idol in the Museum of London. (Ethan Doyle White / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Dagenham idol is a wooden statue of a naked human figure, found in Dagenham, a town in East London, England in 1922. The statue has been carbon dated to around 2250 BC, during the late Neolithic period or early Bronze Age, making it one of the oldest human representations found in Europe. This image shows a replica of the Dagenham Idol in the Museum of London. (Ethan Doyle White / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Finding Wooden Needles in Archaeological Haystacks

While it is just a single artifact, the British archaeological community is delighted by this find.

“This is a truly remarkable find which brings us face to face with our past,” exclaimed Jim Williams, a senior science advisor with Historic England who was asked to comment on the discovery. “The quality of the carving is exquisite and the figure is all the more exciting because organic objects from this period rarely survive.”

The forces of nature are generally not kind to ancient wooden relics. They can be preserved only under certain special conditions, and even then they have to be discovered to be studied. Consequently, carved wooden figures from British prehistory and Roman-era Britain are exceptionally difficult to recover, although a few have been unearthed.

In 2019, a wooden limb identified as a sacred Roman offering to the gods was found at the bottom of a well in Northamptonshire. More than a century earlier, in 1866, archaeologists found a carved human figure made from wood at an early Iron Age (800 to 600 BC) site along the banks of the River Teign in Devon County . In 1922, a Neolithic period (circa 4,000 BC) wooden carving known as the Dagenham idol was recovered during a dig on the north bank of the River Thames.

Excavations will continue in the area of Buckinghamshire where the Roman statue was discovered, to see if the site will produce more items from Roman times. Previous archaeological work has already provided important details about Roman influence in the Buckinghamshire region, which borders the London metropolitan area on its eastern side.

“In Buckinghamshire, our careful work has enabled us to build a much greater understanding of how the landscape was used by our ancestors, especially during the Roman period, and is brought to life further through incredible artefacts like this figure,” said Helen Wass, the head of heritage at HS2 Ltd.

Top image: The Roman era wooden statue found at the Twyford Buckinghamshire HS2 rail project dig site in England submerged for cleaning.  Source: HS2

By Nathan Falde

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