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The log coffin containing the remains of a man buried with an axe, thought to date from 4000 years ago, is undergoing extensive preservation work with help from Historic England.
The remarkable find was made by chance during works to a pond at Tetney Golf Club in July 2018, during a spell of hot weather. The golf club’s owner was put in contact with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Historic England.
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.
There are around 65 early Bronze Age log coffins known from Britain as it is rare for them to survive. In this case a deep layer of silt aided its preservation.
Thankfully, a team of staff and students from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology working nearby offered their assistance.
Then, Historic England’s scientific staff at Fort Cumberland and York carried out an initial assessment of the material and landscape.
Following a year of cold storage while being assessed, it was moved to York Archaeological Trust where it has been undergoing preservation work.
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.
The coffin is slightly longer than a telephone box, around three metres long and one metre wide and made from hollowing out a tree trunk. 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.
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.
According to the archaeologists, the axe is more a symbol of authority than a practical tool and extremely rare. Especially because the wooden haft survives as well as the stone head. There’s only 12 known of its kind from Britain.
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.
Once the preservation work is complete, the items will be moved to Lincolnshire's The Collection Museum.
The site of the ancient burial ground has now been protected as a Scheduled Monument by the Secretary of State.
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