Written by Maria Cramer
In July 2018, Hugh Willmott was overseeing the excavation of an Anglo-Saxon burial site in northeast England when a regional preservation official told him about a potentially more exciting find.
Just down the road, at Tetney Golf Club, a local golf course, workers digging in a small pond with a giant excavator had hit something extremely unexpected: a prehistoric coffin containing the skeletal remains of a man.
When Willmott, an archaeologist and senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield, arrived at the golf course the next day, he found a scene that he said could only be described as “a mess.”
Ten to 12 feet underground, the crew had discovered a waterlogged burial site and an exposed coffin broken in pieces. Willmott said he quickly realized that he and his team of archaeologists would have to act fast and undertake a “rescue and recovery operation” to save the coffin from further deterioration.
“It was a very hot summer here,” he said Friday. “Preserved wood exposed was going to decay very quickly. It couldn’t wait days, let alone weeks.”
Archaeologists inspected the timbers and discovered it was a log coffin, made of a hollowed-out tree that had been buried under a mound. Using log coffins was “an unusual form of burial” that had briefly been the practice 4,000 years ago in the Bronze Age, said Tim Allen, an archaeologist with Historic England, a public agency charged with preserving the country’s history.
Along with the remains was “a perfectly preserved ax” with a stone head and a wooden handle, according to the University of Sheffield.
The ancient timber and ax were placed in temporary cold storage to keep them stable while archaeologists tried to learn as much as possible about them before the researchers had to begin the conservation process, which could slightly alter the artifacts’ appearance, Willmott said.
Historic England helped pay for the effort with a grant of nearly 70,000 pounds, or about $97,000. The coffin was transported to York Archaeological Trust, where the conservation process was expected to take two years. Conservationists are still deciding whether to try to put the coffin back together, said Ian Panter, head of conservation at the trust.
“It will be quite like a big jigsaw puzzle,” he said in a video posted on the trust’s website. One end of the coffin is 2.4 meters — nearly 8 feet — long and weighs half a ton, Panter said. The whole coffin is about 3 meters long and 1 meter wide, according to the trust.
The coffin and the ax will eventually be displayed at The Collection, an art and archaeology museum in Lincolnshire, not far from the golf course, according to Historic England. The remains of the man will stay “in curated care” and are unlikely to be displayed, Willmott said.
He added that the bones of the man reveal that he was 5-foot-9 — “quite tall” for that era — and that he most likely died in his late 30s or early 40s.
The bones also showed evidence of osteoarthritis, the “result of heavy work rather than old age,” Willmott said.
“He would have looked like he went to the gym,” he said.
The burial he received strongly suggested that the man was an important figure in his community, Willmott said.
“To make a log coffin is a bit of complicated technology,” he said.
A gravel mound was constructed over the coffin, which would have required the efforts of many people, not just family members, Willmott said.
The ax was most likely ceremonial, a “symbol of authority,” Allen said. He added that radiocarbon dating could help them analyze the wood so they could determine when the tree was taken down.
The time-consuming burial suggests “this was a society with a hierarchy focused upon certain individuals,” Allen said.
Everyone involved in the project agreed not to publicize the discovery until an analysis was done, Willmott said.
The owner of the golf course also agreed to stay silent, he said.
The owner, Mark Casswell, was “quite keen for people not to know, because he thought it might put off business,” Willmott said. “People either get weirded out by dead bodies or they’re fascinated by them.”
Casswell did not respond to messages seeking comment Friday. But in a statement, he said he was amazed that such a discovery had been made on his property.
“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,” he said.
As soon as the workers made the discovery, Casswell said, the golf course contacted local authorities, who put them in touch with Historic England.
Casswell said he planned to put a photograph of the ax on the clubhouse wall.
“It’s certainly something to think about while you’re playing your way round the course,” he said.