A rare early Bronze-age log coffin containing the remains of a man buried with an axe, discovered accidently on a golf course, is being conserved by YAT’s Conservation Team in their specialist lab in York. Once conservation has been completed it will soon have a home in Lincoln’s Collection Museum, near where the discovery was made. The coffin and its contents are thought to date from 4,000 years ago.
The discovery sparked a rescue mission, supported by almost £70,000 of grant funding from Historic England, to ensure the delicate structure did not crumble after it was exposed to the sun and air.
The coffin is slightly longer than a telephone box, around three metres long and one metre wide. It was made from hollowing out a tree trunk, and plants were used to cushion the body, then a gravel mound was raised over the grave; practices that were only afforded to people with a high status within Bronze Age society.
The remarkable find was made by chance during works to a pond at Tetney Golf Club in July 2019, during a spell of hot weather. The golf club’s owner, Mark Casswell, was put in contact with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Historic England.
Following a year of cold storage while being assessed, it was moved to York Archaeological Trust where it has been undergoing preservation work. The work will soon be completed, and the items moved to The Collection Museum.
According to the archaeologists, the axe seems more a symbol of authority than a practical tool, while the coffin gives an insight into how social hierarchy was marked out in the early Bronze Age. So far, yew or juniper leaves have been found within the coffin and further work is planned to discover more about how plants were used in this burial practice, and the time of year the burial took place.
The axe is extremely rare, there’s thought to be only 12 known from Britain, especially because the wooden haft survives as well as the stone head.
The log-coffin was originally created by carving a large, single, fast-growing oak tree. It used ‘split timber’ construction technique, where the tree trunk was split lengthways first to create a half or slightly larger log for carving, rather than hollowing out a whole tree from scratch. It probably had a lid, of which part survives,
There are around 65 early Bronze Age log coffins known from Britain as it is rare for them to survive, given they are made of wood. In this case a deep layer of silt aided its preservation. However, once the coffin was exposed it was a race to prevent its rapid deterioration. Thankfully, a team of staff and students from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology working nearby offered their assistance.
Historic England organised recovering the timber and the owner then reinstated the ground with professional attendance from Wessex Archaeology. Historic England’s scientific staff at Fort Cumberland and York carried out an initial assessment of the material and landscape. The coffin was then moved to the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth whilst Sheffield University carried out analytical work.
The coffin is now at York Archaeological Trust where recording and conservation work continues. It is a slow and careful process to preserve the ancient timber, when completed the items will be moved to The Collection Museum.
The site of the ancient burial ground has now been protected as a Scheduled Monument by the Secretary of State.
Dr Hugh Willmott, of the University of Sheffield, said:
“Organic material was preserved in the damp and airless conditions within the hollowed-out tree trunk – this can tell us about the plants that were chosen to cushion the body and even the time of year this man was laid to rest.
“Luckily when the burial was found I had staff and students from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield working on a nearby research and training excavation. This was a brilliant learning experience for our students to see what can be achieved at short notice. I’m so pleased the University of Sheffield Department of Archaeology was able step up and help.”
Tim Allen, of Historic England, said:
“After local authority and Portable Antiquities Scheme staff made an initial inspection, Sheffield University were able to attend. It was only thanks to them being able to assist that weekend that we were able to secure the coffin, axe and surviving human remains.
“The man buried at Tetney lived in in a very different world to ours but like ours, it was a changing environment, rising sea levels and coastal flooding ultimately covered his grave and burial mound in a deep layer of silt that aided its preservation.
“It took teamwork from everyone involved plus grant funding from Historic England to make sure the opportunity wasn’t lost. Bronze Age log coffins are rare and for them to survive after their discovery is even rarer. Once the wet wood was out of the ground there wasn’t long to react.”
Mark Casswell, owner of Tetney Golf Club, said:
“My family farmed here for years before we opened the Golf Course and I’d never have imagined that there was a whole other world there buried under the fields. As soon as we realised what we’d brought up working on the pond we contacted the local authority and they put us in touch with the archaeologists from the County Council and Historic England.
“It’s amazing how well preserved the axe is with its handle still there like it was made yesterday. We’ll have a nice photograph of it up on the Clubhouse wall, all those years that people have been living here working the land, it’s certainly something to think about while you’re playing your way round the course.”
Councillor Lindsey Cawrey, executive councillor for culture at Lincolnshire County Council, said:
“This is such an exciting find for Lincolnshire and I can’t wait to welcome it to our museum collection. The preservation of the axe and handle, and the coffin timbers, is astonishing, and we’re looking forward to being able to share the story of the discovery, and the results of the scientific analysis, with researchers and visitors to The Collection Museum when the finds are conserved and ready to come to Lincoln. We’ll be able to provide access to these important finds for future generations”.
Ian Panter, Head of Conservation York Archaeological Trust, said:
“The prehistoric log burial from Tetney is a significant discovery and we are very pleased to be part of the Historic England funded project team, contributing to the research and carrying out the conservation of the coffin and axe. Our expertise in the conservation of waterlogged finds will be put to good use, ensuring that this remarkable discovery is preserved and appreciated by a wide audience. We hope to preserve the axe within 12 months but the coffin, due to its size, will take at least two years to fully treat.”
Notes to Editors
Historic England is the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England’s spectacular historic environment, from beaches and battlefields to parks and pie shops. We protect, champion and save the places that define who we are where we’ve come from as a nation. We care passionately about the stories they tell, the ideas they represent and the people who live, work and play among them. Working with communities and specialists we share our passion, knowledge and skills to inspire interest, care and conservation, so everyone can keep enjoying and looking after the history that surrounds us all. www.historicengland.org.uk
The National Heritage List for England is held and managed by Historic England on behalf of the Government and Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). It identifies the buildings, monuments, sites and landscapes which receive special protection, so they can be enjoyed by current and future generations. There are more than 400,000 items on the NHLE, covering England’s most valued prehistoric and historic places.