Yew Tree

Four thousand year-old cutting-edge technology in Dagenham

A rare preserved prehistoric yew tree from Dagenham has been added to the collections at Valence House Museum. 

Discovered in 2018, prior to Countryside Partnerships and L&Q’s regeneration of the former Ford Motor Company Ltd Assembly Plant at Beam Park Riverside, the tree shows evidence of having been hollowed out and cut using fine metal tools. Scientifically dated to around 2300BC, the tree comes from the Chalcolithic era, or very early Bronze Age, when for a short period of just 300 years copper tools were being used.

The archaeological investigation was a planning requirement of the council, with the work agreed and monitored by Historic England’s Greater London Archaeology Advice Service (GLAAS).  The excavations, just to the south of New Road, were undertaken by Pre-Construct Archaeology Ltd (PCA) and managed by RPS, a Tetra Tech Company, on behalf of Countryside Partnerships.  

Experts believe that the yew tree was part of woodland that covered southern Dagenham where it borders the River Thames, which formed part of the London Floodplain. A 3-meter-deep trench exposed the prehistoric peat of marshes associated with the area, revealing a number of fallen trees. Rapidly rising sea levels had flooded this land, drowning the trees and killing them.  

Examination of the yew tree revealed that it had died standing and had weathered a little whilst upright before a great north-westerly storm caused it to fall. It fell into wetland peats where it was preserved by waterlogging and sealing under clay silts. Slight decay on the surface of the tree shows that it lay where it fell for some time before prehistoric people began to work on it to hollow it out. Throughout history, the hollowing of large wooden vessels usually involved cutting scores across the grain and then splitting out the waste timber between the grooves. The rough surface created was then smoothed and pared back afterwards. The surface was also charred indicating that fire was used at the start of the process to assist in burning off the bark and outer layers of wood.

However, after an estimated two-days’ work hollowing out the yew log, it was abandoned.  It’s possible that the tree was destined to become a small dugout boat, but that a large void was discovered at the root end of the tree which made the tree unusable as a boat, so it was discarded.

The preserved yew tree retains 12 distinct narrow or partial grooves made by a thin-bladed chisel-type tool only c.22-23mm wide. The narrowness and depth of these grooves indicates that only a metal chisel blade could have been used to cut them, as a stone, bone or antler chisel would have been too thick to achieve such narrow cuts. It provides evidence of very early woodworking with metal tools in Britain during a period when very few copper edge tools are known despite the massive technological change they represent.

The discovery of this preserved yew tree adds to the prehistoric narrative of the northern Thames estuary flood plain. The most famous find from the area is the Dagenham Idol, currently on display in Valence House Museum. This complete, humanlike carved wooden figure was found in 1922 just c.750m west of the Beam Park site. With similar dates, it is possible that the prehistoric community that worked the Beam Park yew log knew of the Dagenham Idol and the rituals associated with its making and deposition. Other Bronze Age wooden structures have also been discovered in the area, including trackways, timber platforms, fence lines, a footbridge, a beaver dam and simple cooking implements.

Despite uncovering a number of fallen trees, the yew tree, however, was the only substantial and very clearly worked timber found during the archaeological investigations at the site.  It was sent to York Archaeology Trust to be conserved. All excavation and conservation works were funded by Countryside Partnerships.

Valence House Museum plans to seek funding to put this rare discovery on display within the museum.

Councillor Saima Ashraf, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Community Leadership and Engagement, said: “Here in Barking and Dagenham, we not only celebrate our present and future, but we are extremely proud of our past. I am very excited by this find and glad that going forward our residents will be able to learn more about our rich history.”

Adam Single from GLAAS stated: “Dagenham’s reputation for cutting edge technology didn’t start with the invention of the Ford Cortina, thanks to this work we now know it stretches back over 4,000 years”.

Robert Masefield from RPS added: “The Beam Park Riverside archaeological project has been ongoing since 2016 and has uncovered important evidence of prehistoric and later human exploitation of the marsh edge, including the worked yew. This landscape between the inhabitable dry land and the wetland may have been thought of as liminal, or even spiritually dangerous, in the Early Bronze Age, when the Dagenham Idol was probably placed as an offering, and this worked yew tree was abandoned.”   

Kevin Delve, Managing Director, London East, Countryside Partnerships, commented: “Part of Ford’s legendary Dagenham plant and used for the dress rehearsal of the London 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony, Beam Park already had a fascinating history. The discovery of this ancient yew tree adds a further layer of intrigue to Beam Park, and we are proud to support these vital archaeological works as we write the next chapter in the site’s story, creating a new mixed-use community at one of London’s largest regeneration sites.”

Pre Construct Archaeology Ltd are very pleased to be associated with the ongoing research and these exciting results concerning the Prehistoric environment and occupation of the Thames foreshore in Dagenham. Damain Goodburn has been consulted as a specialist in archaeological woodworking techniques.