According to the MOLA archaeology team, several of the recovered Iron Age timber items are quite uncommon. People utilized a lot of wood in the past, notably in buildings like roundhouses, which were the major form of structures people lived in throughout the Iron Age (800BC – 43AD).
Usually, the only evidence we find of the roundhouse buildings are post holes, where the wooden posts have already rotted away. This is because wood breaks down very quickly when buried in the ground. In fact, less than 5% of archaeological sites across England have any remaining wood!
If wood decomposes so quickly, how did archaeologists find some?
Wood is broken down by fungi and micro-organisms such as bacteria. But, if the wood is on very wet ground, it can take in water and become waterlogged. When wood is full of water and buried in wet ground, it doesn’t dry out.
This means that oxygen can’t get to the wood. The bacteria can’t survive without oxygen, so there is nothing to help the wood decompose.
“Part of our excavation area is a shallow valley where groundwater still gathers naturally. Basically, this means the ground is always wet and boggy.
It would have been the same during the Iron Age when the local community used this area for gathering water from shallow wells. Although this meant excavating was very muddy work for the archaeologists, it also led to some remarkable discoveries,” the MOLA said in a press statement.
Several incredible wooden objects were preserved in the boggy ground for 2000 years. One of them was an Iron Age ladder used by the local community to reach the water from the shallow well.
Scientists have also uncovered an object that may look like a basket but isn’t. It is actually wattle panels (woven twigs and branches) covered with daub, made from materials such as mud, crushed stone, and straw or animal hair. This panel was used to line the waterhole, but wattle and daub were also used to build houses for thousands of years. Finding some preserved from as long ago as the Iron Age is incredibly rare.
After discovering preserved wood, archaeologists must act quickly. The most important thing is that the wood is kept wet until it can be carefully dried out in a lab by expert conservators. If it isn’t kept wet, it will begin to decompose quickly and can completely disintegrate!
What can we learn from the wood?
“We can learn a lot from these wooden objects. As well as being able to see how people made and used them during their daily lives, finding out what type of wood they used will tell us about the trees which grew in the area. This can help us reconstruct how the landscape would have looked at the time, and how that landscape changed throughout history.
It isn’t just wood that can be preserved in these wet environments! We also find insects, seeds, and pollen. These all help our environmental archaeologists build up a picture of how the landscape of Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire looked 2000 years ago.
Looking at pollen and plants preserved in the water, they have already identified some of the plants which were growing nearby, including buttercups and rushes!” the MOLA science team explains.
Archaeological works at the site continue. Now the wood will be carefully dried out by our conservators, and then the specialists can examine these wooden objects.