Rare Bronze Age coffin sheds light on ancient funerary rites

The coffin, thought to date back c. 4,000 years, was crafted from a hollowed-out oak tree trunk

Charlotte Graham Ian Panter, Head of Conservation at York Archaeological Trust, pictured with the coffin. Image: Charlotte Graham.

Details about the remarkable discovery in Lincolnshire of an Early Bronze Age log coffin still containing the remains of the deceased have been revealed, sparking questions about high-status burial rituals during this period.

The find was made in July 2018 during work on a pond at Tetney Golf Club in East Lincolnshire.

After an initial inspection by the local authority and Portable Antiquities Scheme, Historic England were assisted by students from Sheffield University’s Archaeology department in recovering the coffin.

According to Tim Allen from Historic England: ‘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.’

With grant funding from Historic England, the coffin was delicately extracted. Wessex Archaeology were in attendance as the ground was re-instated.

Following a year of assessment within cold storage, the coffin was moved to the York Archaeological Trust where recording and conservation work continues.

The 3m-long and 1m-wide coffin, thought to date back c. 4,000 years, was crafted from a hollowed-out oak tree trunk. Partial remains of its wooden lid still survive.

The grave was covered over with a gravel mound – a Bronze Age practice only afforded to high-status individuals.

Examination revealed plants were used to cushion the deceased and – with further analysis – researchers may be able to infer the time of year the burial occurred from the remains of yew and juniper leaves found within the coffin.

Charlotte Graham This object was placed within the burial. Note the excellent state-of-preservation of its stone head and wooden haft. Image: Charlotte Graham.

An object – possibly an axe – was included in the burial. Its stone head, however, is too soft for it to have been wielded as a practical tool or weapon. It seems most likely to have embodied some symbolic significance. Further research will be carried out to confirm its identity.

The items will be housed and displayed in Lincoln’s Collection Museum once conservation work is complete.

Look out for a further in-depth analysis of the unique discovery in the next issue of Current Archaeology (Issue 380).