Archaeologists have unexpectedly uncovered London’s oldest timber structure, which predates Stonehenge by about 500 years.
The structure, apparently a platform or trackway used to make a boggy area more navigable, was found during the excavation of a prehistoric peat bog adjacent to Belmarsh Prison in Plumstead, Greenwich, in advance of the construction of a new prison building.
Radiocarbon dating has shown the structure to be nearly 6,000 years old, well before Stonehenge was erected. Previously, the oldest timber structure in Greater London was the timber trackway in Silvertown, which has been dated to 3340 to 2910 B.C., about 700 years younger than the newly discovered setup.
The platform or trackway has been buried over time and was found about 15.4 feet (4.7m) beneath two yards (meters) of peat adjacent to an ancient river channel.
Wetlands adjacent to rivers such as the Thames were an important source of food for prehistoric people, and timber trackways and platforms made it easier to cross the boggy terrain. The structure discovered at Plumstead is an early example of people adapting the natural landscape to meet human needs, researchers said.
"The discovery of the earliest timber structure in London is incredibly important. The timber structure is slightly earlier in date than the earliest trackways excavated in the Somerset Levels, including the famous 'Sweet Track' to Glastonbury, which provide some of the earliest physical evidence for woodworking in England," said Mark Stevenson, Archaeological Advisor at English Heritage, the British government's advisor on the historic environment, which was involved with the finding.
Peat bogs are excellent environments for preserving organic material, including even human remains. The peat where the structure was found not only preserved wood, but also other plant matter — down to microscopic pollen grains — which can inform scientists about the prehistoric landscape.
Remains of Stone Age settlements have also been found on the floor of the English Channel.