A handy discovery in Northamptonshire

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This Roman wooden arm was found in a stone-lined well during excavations at Warth Park in Raunds. (IMAGE: Michael Bamforth )

During excavations at Warth Park in Raunds, Northamptonshire, archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology east made an unusual roman discovery: a wooden arm with an open right hand.

The arm, cut off just before the shoulder, was found in a stone-lined well along with sherds of Roman pottery, and may have been purposefully deposited as some sort of votive offering. Radiocarbon dating of the arm has confirmed that it is indeed contemporary with the pottery it was recovered with, dating to early in the Romano-British period, c.AD 86-240. A near complete Samian ware flagon (of the Stanfield 67 type) was recovered from the same waterlogged deposit, and is believed to have been ritually disposed of as well.

The wood is well-preserved due to the waterlogged conditions in which it lay, and post-excavation analysis by Michael Bamforth, a wood expert from the University of Sheffield, was able to determine some unusual characteristics. The arm appears to have been carved from one long branch, with the natural curve of the wood used to form the elbow. There were also no obvious tool marks visible, indicating that it was probably made with care by someone well-skilled in carving wood.

The arm is quite slender and diminutive in size, and Michael suggests that if it was made to be life-size then it may have been crafted to represent an adolescent or small adult. Interestingly, there is also no trace of a joint or any other mark that might suggest it was once attached to a larger sculpture. This means that it may have been the representation of the arm itself that was important for this particular offering.

Wooden body parts have been discovered in similar deposits on the Continent, particularly in what is now France, but all of these examples date from later in the Roman period. This is thought to be the first such artefact found in the UK, making it of national, even international, importance, and it provides an interesting new insight into the rituals of Romano-British life.

Analysis of the arm is ongoing and will hopefully provide further details about this unusual artefact.

This article appeared in CA 354.

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