Heritage Recording Services Wales - HERITAGE & ARCHAEOLOGICAL CONTRACTOR AND CONSULTANT
HRS Wales Projects

Maerdy Windfarm, Glamorgan (2012-2013)

During a program of watching brief work at the Maerdy Windfarm site, near Treherbert and Maerdy, in the Rhondda, Glamorgan, Richard recovered several pieces of oak timber from waterlogged peat deposits. Following cleaning and inspection of these timbers off site, in the hope of discovering evidence of possible tool markings, it was discovered that one of these oak timbers appeared to be decoratively carved. Later radiocarbon dating showed that this oak timber was in fact 6,270 year old.

Carved Oak timber found in peat deposits during archaeological watching brief at Maerdy, Rhondda in Vale of Glamorgan, has been radiocarbon dated to 6270 years old (Low Resolution image). (Copyright Richard Scott Jones)The discovery of decorative wood carving surviving on timber of this age is so rare, that the timber is very probably unique and remarkably one of the oldest pieces of art carved into timber ever recorded and recovered in Europe and the British Isles.

Although the discovery of oak timber of this age is not unusual from ancient peat deposits, what is significant about this particular piece is that the timber has intricately carved patterning along one of its sides in the form of parallel running zigs-zags or chevrons and an apparent concentric oval motif at one end. This latter carving is popularly interpreted as possibly being a representation of an 'eye'. If this interpretation were to be the case, then it would be logical to assume that it may have been mirrored by another eye on the opposing side of the timber. However, unfortunately due to the degradation of the timber, the greater part of the outer tree ring across the entire timber into which the carving had been made is now absent, leaving only the remnants of carving we see now along one edge. 
 
The partially degraded split timber measures approximately 1.7 meters in length and 0.26 meters in width. It appears to have been deliberately rounded at one end and appears to have possibly been tapered at the other end, as if possibly once having served as a tribal marker post of some kind, perhaps marking a tribal boundary, or a hunting ground or perhaps even a sacred site. Another possibility is that the carved timber may have been a votive offering, considering the area in which it was found was very waterlogged, possibly having once been a pool in the Late Mesolithic and as such the carving may have even been a representation of a tribal deity.

 
Patterned Oak found during archaeological watching brief at Maerdy, Rhondda in Vale of Glamorgan - Detail of concentric oval carving toward rounded end. A popular interpretation of this detail carving is that it may represent an 'eye' (Low Resolution image). (Copyright Richard Scott Jones)The only other known 'decorative art' of a similar age and design to that carved into the recovered timber, survives as decoration on Neolithic pottery, or as stone carving on standing stones in both Britain and Europe. In Wales, examples of this type of abstract design are found carved into a number of standing stones in Neolithic passage graves on Anglesey, such as a those at the 'Barclodiad y Gawres' tomb.
 
Patterned Oak found during archaeological watching brief at Maerdy, Rhondda in Vale of Glamorgan - Illustration highlighting carved areas that have survived thousands of years of degradation. (Copyright Richard Scott Jones)When the patterning on the timber was first identified in late September 2012, a small sample of the wood from a frayed end was sent for Radiocarbon dating, which returned a Sigma calibrated date of between 6000-6270 years BP, placing the timber into the Late Mesolithic/Early Neolithic period, a time known to have been a transitional period marking the change from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to that of a tribal sedentary lifestyle. For the Mesolithic period most archaeological evidence survives only in the form of stone tools, so the discovery of intricate artwork carved into timber is a particularly exciting and unique discovery that now offers us something physical and tangible visually and gives us fresh insight into the apparent sophistication and complexity of Late Mesolithic Britain.
 
Because of the potential significance of such a find (due to timber of this age rarely surviving), archaeological specialists who have examined the timber, were understandably cautious as to the cause of the patterning on the artefact, exploring the possibility of other natural processes, such as compression or as a result of insect agency, a common suspect being the possibility that the grooved patterning may have been caused by oak bark beetle, the channels being beetle larvae galleries, many of which bear a striking similarity to a certain area of the decoration.
Carved Oak timber found in peat deposits during archaeological watching brief at Maerdy, Rhondda in Vale of Glamorgan -  Side view showing carving that has survived degradation (Low Resolution image). (Copyright: Richard Scott Jones) 
However, following further examination and consultation with a team of archaeologists from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust (GGAT) and a number of respected palaeo-entomologists, it was confirmed that the zig-zag or chevron patterns and the concentric 'eye' motif, positioned toward the rounded end, were not formed by any natural process, including oak bark beetles,  but probably were as a result of human carving. In addition, the other oak timber remains recovered from the site do not bear similar patterning.
 
This makes the timber artefact of exceptional significance and as such is of both National and International importance, being the earliest known evidence of 'art' on timber ever recorded in the British Isles and Europe.

Immediately after the discovery of the carved timber and the return of the radiocarbon date, the timber was transported to the Newport Ship Centre for temporary preservation in a water holding tank and 3D laser scanning, a process to accurately record the carving.

 
Carved Oak timber found in peat deposits during archaeological watching brief at Maerdy, Rhondda in Vale of Glamorgan - 3D Laser scan undertaken by Newport Ship Centre  (Low Resolution image). (Copyright: Richard Scott Jones)Whilst this work was being undertaken, back at the discovery site, a small transect excavation was undertaken in the hope of recovering further evidence, most importantly lithic material associated with the carved timber, but unfortunately none was found. 

Palaeo-environmental samples were taken from several locations at the site and these are presently being analysed and the results assessed. The carved timber, along with the remains of other oak tree samples from the site, is also undergoing dendrochronological (tree ring) analysis, which it is hoped will provide a more precise date for the artefact. Once the results of all of these assessments have been completed (late October 2013), a full archaeological report of this remarkable find and the watching brief work at Maerdy will be written up and submitted to the regional archaeological trust (GGAT). Subsequent articles to Antiquity and other academic publications will also be forthcoming. 
 
This unique and enigmatic timber has no completed its conservation program of wax-glycol treatment and  freeze drying at the York Archaeological Trust in York, and the timber has no been deposited with the Nattional Museum in Cardiff, with the idea of having it displayed in the new galleries at the National History Museum, St Fagans in the spring of 2016.

Background
 
A Written Scheme of Archaeological Investigation was agreed with Rhondda Cynon Taf Borough Council as part of the agreed planning conditions. This scheme consisting of a watching brief during the positioning of protective fencing around a number of sites of cultural heritage prior to groundworks commencing and during all topsoil stripping and other ground disturbances associated with the development.
 
Construction staff from 2020 Renewables were responsible for overseeing the construction of Maerdy Windfarm. In accordance with the agreed protocol in the event of a significant archaeological feature being discovered the site archaeologist was immediately notified. The wind farm developers assumed full financial responsibility for the investigation and assessment of the find.

Richard Scott Jones (BA, MA, MCIfA)

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