10 October 2021

Rare early Bronze Age log coffin discovered on Lincolnshire golf course

An early Bronze Age log coffin containing the remains of a man buried with an axe thought to date from 4,000 years ago has been discovered accidently on a golf course.

Ian Panter, Head of Conservation York Archaeological Trust with the coffin
Ian Panter, Head of Conservation York Archaeological Trust with the coffin. Image credit: York Archaeological Trust

  • The coffin, containing the remains of a man and a perfectly preserved axe, were found by chance during works at Tetney golf course
  • The grave shows evidence this was the burial of a highly regarded person given the effort involved in the construction of the coffin
  • It gives an insight into the social hierarchy of the early Bronze Age

An early Bronze Age log coffin containing the remains of a man buried with an axe thought to date from 4,000 years ago has been discovered accidently on a golf course.

The discovery of the coffin and its contents sparked a rescue mission funded by a £70,000 grant from Historic England and supported by a team of staff and students from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology working nearby who offered their assistance.

The coffin, which is three metres long and one metre wide, was specially protected to ensure the delicate structure did not crumble after it was exposed to the sun and air.

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 2018, 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 shaft 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.

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 the University of Sheffield carried out analytical work.

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.

Dr Hugh Willmott

University of Sheffield

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: “Luckily when the burial was found, myself and a team of staff and students from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield were 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 and I’m so pleased we were able to help.”

Tim Allen, of Historic England, said: “After local authority and Portable Antiquities Scheme staff made an initial inspection, Sheffield University was 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 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 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.”