A historian examining the wooden planks.
Photo: Maritime Archaeological Trust

Archaeologists have spotted an 8,000-year-old wooden platform in the waters off southern Great Britain.

The mostly intact find sat in a larger archaeological site 35 feet below the water’s surface. It represents a substantial increase in the amount of ancient worked wood found in the United Kingdom, and scientists hypothesize that it was a platform used to build ships.

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“As a feature by itself it’s quite incredible,” Garry Momber, director of the Maritime Archaeological Trust in the United Kingdom, told Gizmodo. “This is the most cohesive, intact structure from the Middle Stone Age ever recovered in the United Kingdom.”

Archaeologists first found the site in 2005, which included a pile of cut wood and artifacts like remnants of wheat and string. This past year, further excavation revealed the large, intact wooden platform—layers of cut wood atop a wooden foundation. Carbon dating combined with tree ring data and the depth of the site revealed its age to be around 8,000 years old.

The reconstructed wood platform.
Photo: The Maritime Archaeological Trust

Shortly after the end of the last ice age, sea levels were much lower, and there was no water separating the United Kingdom from France. Early humans could have migrated north into Great Britain and built sites like this. Rising sea levels eventually engulfed the site, while the dark, cold, wet conditions prevented the wood from rotting away.

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The discovery is exciting for a lot of reasons. The wood demonstrates woodworking techniques not seen in British artifacts for another 2,500 years. “It opens doors into something we know so little about—how these people arrived and how these societies slowly developed and changed,” Momber said. It also hints at how much of humanity’s history might be hiding underwater.

Other scientists were impressed by the site as well. “This is an important find for understanding early woodworking technologies in this part of the world,” Mark Aldenderfer, distinguished professor at the University of California, Merced, not involved in the new study, told Gizmodo. He eagerly awaited more details, such as more information on how the dating was done.

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Some of the researchers we spoke with were cautious about making any guesses as to the purpose of the structure. “Whilst I love the idea that this is the oldest boat-building site in the world (which chimes so well with the maritime heritage of the Isle of Wight), I would be tentative of making this claim from the wooden timbers discovered,” Helen Farr, lecturer in archaeology at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, told Gizmodo in an email. “However, a platform or walkway would fit with what I would expect from other known sites of this age.” She thought the site was important, and looked forward to the results of further analysis.

Still, the study demonstrates that there’s a lot we don’t know about the Stone Age. Given water’s importance to human throughout history, there’s likely plenty of ancient artifacts in oceans that would otherwise have degraded on land. “I’ve always wondered what we’re missing that hadn’t survived that’s built of wood,” marine archaeologist James Delgado, Senior Vice President at Search Inc not involved in the study, told Gizmodo.

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Unfortunately, the site is being lost to erosion. Said Farr: “It is really important to now think about how we can protect these important sites that can tell us so much about activity in the deep past.”