A weighty stone carved with a mysterious pattern that may be writing has been discovered in a garden in Leicester, England.
The hefty carving was up for sale as a garden ornament when archaeologist and TV presenter James Balme found it. The carving, which was very dirty, may have been plowed up many years ago, Balme said. Despite the carving's poor shape, he thought it was no ordinary ornament; so he purchased it and carefully cleaned it.
When he was done conserving it, Balme saw a stone carving with an extremely complex pattern that is difficult to describe. It's possible the "pattern carved may be some form of writing," Balme told Live Science in an email. The carving's use is unknown, though it could be "a keystone from an archway or indeed a vaulted ceiling," Balme said. [7 Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds on Earth]
The carving, which weighs between 55 and 65 pounds (25 and 30 kilograms), appears to be made out of a hard form of sandstone, Balme said. It's wide at its base but get narrower toward the top. It stands about 18 inches (46 centimeters) high and is 5.5 inches (14 cm) thick. Its decorations are entirely on the front face "although it does have many chisel marks on the sides and back," he said.
The date of the carving is uncertain. Balme says that it may date to the Anglo-Saxon period, which started in 410 when the Roman Empire abandoned Britain, and lasted until 1066, when a group called the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, invaded England.
During the Anglo-Saxon period several different groups migrated to England. These people created fine works of art such as complex stone carvings, some of which survive today. Literature also flourished at this time, the poem "Beowulf" being one of the most famous works from this period.
Although an Anglo-Saxon date for the stone carving is a distinct possibility, Balme cannot be certain. Questions also remain as to what exactly the carving was used for and whether the pattern may represent some form of writing. Balme has taken to Twitter, seeking help to unravel the carving's mysteries.
Garden ornament archaeology
"Garden ornament" may conjure up images of tacky gnomes or other modern-day items. However, over the past few years archaeologists studying garden ornaments have made several interesting discoveries. In 2009, the BBC reported on a garden ornament in Dorset that turned out to be an ancient Egyptian terracotta vase.
Another, more spectacular, example of garden ornament archaeology comes from the modern-day town of Migdal located near the Sea of Galilee in Israel. A team of archaeologists studied ancient architectural remains in Migdal that were being reused as garden ornaments or chairs. These remains aided them in discovering an ancient town, which would have flourished at the time of Christ.
So the next time you see an old garden ornament that seems out of place, remember, you may be looking at an interesting piece of history.
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Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.