'Exquisite' 2,000-year-old Roman figure found during railway excavation

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Courtesy: HS2 Ltd.

(CNN) — A rare and "exquisite" wooden figure from the early Roman period has been unearthed during work on the future HS2 high-speed railway line in the UK.

The figure, believed to be about 2,000 years old, was recovered in July from a water-logged Roman ditch in a field in the village of Twyford, Buckinghamshire, south England. It was initially believed to be a piece of degraded wood, HS2 said in a press release Thursday.

As the excavation continued at the industrial park known as Three Bridge Mill, experts found it was an anthropomorphic figure standing 67 centimeters (26.4 inches) tall and 18 centimeters (7.1 inches) wide.

Made from a single piece of wood, the figure is thought to be from the early Roman period due to the carving style and its tunic-like clothing. HS2 said the figure was in good condition for its age, but the feet and arms below the elbows had degraded.

Details of the figure which remain visible include its hairstyle or hat, well-defined legs and calf muscles and a slightly rotated head, while the tunic it is wearing appears to be gathered at the waist and goes down to above the knee.

"It's an exceptionally rare find," Helen Wass, HS2's head of heritage, told CNN, adding experts only know of two other Romano-British examples of wooden figures in the UK.

Wass said the figure -- made of oak wood -- is believed to be from the 1st century AD, as pottery found in the ditch was of that period.

"We know that the object was quite old before it went in the ground," Wass added. "There were signs of wear, so it's like a cherished, curated item. And so maybe somebody brought it with them. Or maybe they carved it when they were here. We just don't know yet. That's what's really exciting."

Archaeologists believe the quality of the preservation is attributable to the lack of oxygen in the clay fill of the ditch, which helped prevent the wood from rotting -- and it may have been deliberately placed there.

"This is a truly remarkable find which brings us face to face with our past," Jim Williams, senior science adviser for Historic England, said in the press release. "The quality of the carving is exquisite and the figure is all the more exciting because organic objects from this period rarely survive."

A fragment of the figure found separately in the ditch has also been sent for radiocarbon dating to confirm the age of the wood, while stable isotope analysis may indicate where the wood was sourced from.

A wide range of archaeological excavations have been carried out between London and Birmingham as part of the first phase of the HS2 project, with a number of exciting finds including a vast Roman town, Roman statues and a rare mosaic.

This story was first published on CNN.com, "'Exquisite' 2,000-year-old Roman figure found during railway excavation."