7 October 2005
British walker discovers 5,000-year-old log path
For 5,000 years, one of the world's oldest footpaths has remained a hidden secret, locked deep beneath the earth in South Yorkshire (UK). That was until walker Mick Oliver quite literally stumbled across it one day while traipsing across Hatfield Moor, near Doncaster. "I looked down and I could see a straight line. I thought, that's unusual, maybe it's a bog oak, a fossilized tree, so I'll go and have a look," he said. "But when I got there I could see seven parallel poles of pine lined up on the floor. This was most unusual. I knew what I was looking at was old. I could see axe marks on the wood and evidence that they had been tapered. Given their position in the peat, I pretty soon concluded they were old, possibly even Bronze Age. I looked to see how deep they were buried and worked out they may be some 2,500 years old. I never realized just how old they were until later."
After the discovery, Mr. Oliver went to Doncaster Museum to report his find. Without realizing it, he had discovered one of the oldest tracks of its kind ever seen in the world. It dates back to the Neolithic period and only two other pathways on the continent are thought to date back earlier, one in Holland and the other in Germany. And now its very discovery could shed new light on the history of Neolithic man as the pathway yields more and more clues day by day to the dozens of archaeologists now pouring over its every detail.
Archaeologists think it may have been built in a forlorn attempt to stave off the effects of climate change 5,000 years ago, apparently in a hurry across flooding peat bogs during global warming around 5000 BCE. Analysis of the soil and pollen samples suggests the roadway was constructed because the ground was becoming increasingly waterlogged. This could have been due to the onset of warmer and wetter weather, as until then the landscape had been characterized by woodland and heath, but rising water levels killed the trees and the mire began to form.
But once the bog enveloped it, there was no evidence showing repairs or a modification, suggesting it was simply abandoned. Radiocarbon dating suggests it was probably built before Stonehenge, at some point between 2,900 and 2,500 BCE.
The search has begun to find where the track way leads. The pine track stretches over 50m (164ft) of so-called "corduroy track", where logs are laid together to form a roadway. At its widest, it is 4m (13ft) across. But even more significantly is the discovery of a platform at the end of the track. The track of parallel pine logs on the Hatfield Moors is one of the earliest of its type to be found in Europe and was described by English Heritage as "internationally significant". More than 50 meters of track has been excavated in the past year.
Archaeologist Dr. Henry Chapman, site manager, said: "A find like this could rewrite the history of Neolithic man, as we know it. This platform could have been used for a number of reasons. We believe it is too big for a vantage point for hunting, but it could be religiously significant, as a place for offerings to the gods. Or, even more symbolically, it could have been a place where the dead were laid out."
Once the excavation is complete, the track way will be backfilled with earth again, as this is the best way to preserve the timbers.
Sources: Yorkshire Post Today, The Guardian (6 October 2005)