EDINBURGH, Ind. – A large oak tree dug up last summer in a gravel pit could be 6,000 years old or more and might have been entombed by a glacier during the last ice age, scientists say.
Researchers at three universities, including Hillsdale College in Michigan, are awaiting radiocarbon test results to pinpoint the age of the tree, which a southern Indiana dredge operator found under 40 feet of sand and gravel.
But there's more than scientific knowledge at stake.
The owner of a lumber mill now treating some of the chocolate-colored wood with chemicals said it could command top dollar for fine furniture or plaques if it can be properly preserved.
Amos-Hill Associates mill President Richard Wertz said the tree inspires awe.
When it was found at Lee's Ready Mix County Materials gravel pit near Brownstown, 60 miles south of Indianapolis, its root crown and much of the bark was still intact.
"You wonder what kinds of animals walked by this tree when it was standing and if it was ever seen by a human," Wertz said Thursday.
Researchers, foresters, lumbermen and gawkers watched with interest as saws ripped through the densely grained wood at Wertz's mill in Edinburgh Thursday, releasing a rich, musky scent.
Anthony Swinehart, an associate professor of biology at Hillsdale, said the tree's age won't be known until the results of a radiocarbon dating test are available in a couple of weeks.
Based on how deep the tree was buried, he and others estimate its age at 6,000 years. But it could be much older — perhaps up to 30,000 years.
Swinehart said the tree, apparently about 300 years old when it was felled, was probably uprooted and deposited in its final resting place by a glacier during the last ice age.
To the untrained eye, the two 12-foot-long logs cut from the tree don't look much different than the recently felled trees waiting to be turned into veneer at Wertz's mill.
Work is under way to determine if the well-preserved wood — which had been sealed off from air and light for centuries — has any commercial value.
Some the wood will spend weeks in a kiln at Pike Lumber Co. in Akron that will slowly dry it out. Others will be soaked in a 180-degree vat of liquid at Amos-Hill, then shaved into veneer.
If the wood holds up, Wertz said it could be prove valuable for specialty uses showcasing its age. And the old tree isn't the only one buried in the Jackson County gravel pit.
"There's more down there, but you never really know what's there 'til you pull it up," said dredge operator Eugene Meeks, who found the tree.