An early medieval symbol carved on a tree trunk: pathfinder or territorial marker?
By Dagmar Dreslerova and Radek Mikula
Antiquity, Vol.84 (2010)
Abstract: The chance discovery of a carved symbol on a waterlogged tree of the six–ninth century AD may be the earliest mark on a living tree that has so far come to light. Given its rarity, an obvious interpretation remains elusive, but the authors review a wide range of possibilities from analogies ancient and modern. Symbols on trees have been used to mark trails, the ownership of land and resources, and all manner of votive moments from superstitious sign-making, worship of a god, thanks for a successful hunt or the memory of a loving tryst.
Introduction: In modern times carving on living trees is a common phenomenon, featuring hearts, names, initials or dates, an instinctive practice often attracting the disapproval of park-keepers, foresters and ecologists. But trees have been culturally modiﬁed in many ways for centuries, and preserved traces of the art can be found in the forest zones of northern Europe and North America. Like the trees, these are several decades or centuries old at most, but examples of medieval or earlier marks are unknown. Therefore the adventitious discovery of an early medieval carving on a fossil oak tree (Qercus robur) as reported here is exceptional, if not unique. It was found in 2005 during the examination of fossil tree trunks being extracted from a sand and gravel pit on the banks of the Labe (Elbe) river, near Celakovice (central Bohemia, Czech Republic). The tree trunk was extracted together with dozens of other oak trunks, some as long as 10m, from the Holocene alluvial sediments of the river.
Semi-fossil oaks, partially converted to coal, are commonly found in Holocene deposits associated with many European rivers. Although it is not possible to determine exactly where a tree originally stood, or how far the trunk may have been transported by the river, it appears probable that these trees fell down as a result of lateral erosion of the river bank no great distance from the place of their final deposition. Other waterlogged oak trees were extracted from the same sediment levels in the 1930s only a few hundred metres from the location of the current finds.