Prehistoric Wood from Axbridge in Somerset

wooden stake

Illustration of the woodern point by Ann Linge.

It might be stating the obvious to say that one of the most useful qualities for an archaeologist is good eyesight, but there are times when the demands of the job can test even the sharpest vision to its limits. So it’s a good thing that on a filthy wet day at the end of September, 2007, excavation of a trench for a Wessex Water pipeline just south of Axbridge in Somerset, was being archaeologically monitored by BaRAS’s own resident Hawkeye, Richard Coe.

Things were made no easier by the fact that the alluvial clay underneath the subsoil had become a saturated, sticky mess, and the peat layer underneath that had absorbed water until it took on the characteristics of a sodden sponge. In conditions where webbed feet might have been a distinct advantage, Richard spotted a possible palaeochannel in one of the trench sections, and in taking an environmental sample of the peat at that point, one small piece of wood in particular somehow caught his eye. Having worked extensively on the Somerset Levels before joining BaRAS, Richard realised that this was not just the tip of a broken tree branch, but had clear facets and had obviously been deliberately worked. From the outset, Richard was of the view that the item was almost certainly prehistoric in origin, because of the depth at which it was found, the fact that it was well sealed in the peat, and the faceting seemed to have been done with a metal tool.

An opinion was sought from Richard Brunning, who is Somerset County Council’s archaeology officer for the Levels: his view was that the wood offcut, which turned out to be ash, was indeed worked, was probably the broken point of a small post or stake, that it was prehistoric in date, and that it may well have come from a larger structure somewhere in the vicinity. The artefact was subsequently sent for radiocarbon analysis, and returned a date of 3834 ± 168 BP, which would put it around the early Bronze Age. As, apparently, the first firmly dated, prehistoric worked wooden object from the Axe Valley peat, Richard Brunning considers it to be potentially of national importance, and the prospect of contemporary structures nearby, perhaps trackways or platforms of the kind now well known from elsewhere in the Levels, presents exciting possibilities for the future; so Richard Coe probably needn’t worry about having to visit Specsavers, at least for the foreseeable future

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