A huge excavation to lay the foundations for Britain’s new high-speed rail network is helping to unearth rich new details about ancient Roman life.
archaeologists on Thursday welcomed the discovery an ‘extremely rare’ and well-preserved humanoid carving at a site in Buckinghamshire, England – the latest find from excavations being carried out as part of the country’s HS2 railway link.
The infrastructure project aims to link London to the north of the country but has been criticized as expensive and unnecessary. As part of the project, archaeological surveys were carried out on sites along the route to shed light on the country’s past.
Earlier this week HS2 Ltd, the publicly funded government company behind the project, announced that a team had excavated a vast Roman trading settlement filled with historical treasures dating back to 43-70 AD.
Rare finds included a major Roman road, coins, jewellery, glass vessels, highly decorative pottery and even evidence of ancient cosmetics.
The prosperous Roman trading town that grew out of an Iron Age village is named “Blackgrounds” after the soil found there. The presence of an “important archaeological site” in the area has been known since the 18th century, the team said in a press release, and the site has been excavated by about 80 archaeologists over the past 12 months.
“The site really has the potential to change our understanding of the Roman landscape in the region and beyond,” said James West, site manager for MOLA Headland Infrastructure.
The findings suggest that the settlement had become more prosperous than initially thought, prompting its residents to adopt Roman customs, products and building techniques – evidenced by workshops, kilns and surviving wells.
The site is in Northamptonshire, around a two-hour drive north of London, and is one of more than 100 being studied as part of the UK capital’s Birmingham-Birmingham railway line project.
Among them is the Three Bridge Mill in Buckinghamshire, where the ‘exquisite’ wooden figure was found. The carving, which had been buried in a moat for centuries, was discovered in July 2021 by archaeologists from Infra Archeology, who worked for HS2’s contractor Fusion JV, before being released on Thursday.
“The amazing discovery of this wooden figure was totally unexpected and the team did a great job to recover it intact,” said Iain Williamson, an archaeologist at Fusion JV.
According to initial assessment data, the “incredibly well-preserved” figure dates from the early Roman period. The figure measures just over 26 inches and 7 inches wide and is carved from a single piece of wood. While most of the figure is intact and well defined, the feet and arms below the elbows appear to have degraded over time.
The figure is believed to be wearing a knee-length tunic, gathered at the waist, with her head turned slightly to the left. Notable details “bring the individual to life” through the preservation of carvings on the head, suggesting that the figure may have worn a hat or a coiffed hairdo.
“This is a truly remarkable find that confronts us with our past. The quality of the carving is exquisite and the figure all the more exciting given the rare survival of organic objects from this period,” said Jim Williams, a senior scientific adviser and homeworker for the HS2 route.
What was initially thought to be just a worn piece of wood turned out to be an impressive indication of how Roman settlements might have worked in the area.
“This discovery helps us visualize what other wood, plant, or animal-based artworks and sculptures were being created at the time,” he said.
The occurrence of wooden figures in British prehistory and the Romano-British period is extremely rare. Examples of wood carvings in the United Kingdom include a wooden limb discovered in a well in Northampton in 2019 and thought to be a Roman votive offering.
The figure “raises new questions about this site, who does the wooden figure represent, what was it used for and why was it important to the people who lived in this part of Buckinghamshire in the 1st century AD?” said Williamson.
Archaeologists believe it is possible that the figurine was placed in the ditch on purpose rather than accidentally discarded. While experts cannot be sure what the carved artifact was used for, it is speculated that the figure may have been used as an offering to the gods, similar to previously discovered wood carvings.
The figurine is held by York Archeology’s Conservation Specialists Laboratory, where it is examined and preserved. Radiocarbon dating of a small broken fragment of the sculpture provides an accurate date for the wood and may indicate the origin of the wood.
The HS2 program has unearthed a treasure trove of “high value finds” as part of the national high-speed rail project. Helen Wass, Head of Heritage at HS2, said she believes combining the infrastructure project with the archaeological dig could provide a great wealth of information about the country’s past.
“We are committed to sharing our findings with communities and the public to deepen our understanding of British history,” she said.