Hugh Willmott was supervising the excavation of an Anglo-Saxon burial site in northeast England in July 2018 when a regional preservation official informed him of a potentially more exciting find.
Workers digging in a small pond with a giant excavator at the Tetney Golf Club, a local golf course, had discovered something completely unexpected: a prehistoric coffin containing the skeletal remains of a man.
Dr. Willmott, an archaeologist and senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield, arrived at the golf course the next day to find a scene that he described as “a mess.”
The crew discovered a waterlogged burial site and a broken-up coffin ten to twelve feet underground. Dr. Willmott said he quickly realised he and his team of archaeologists needed to act quickly and launch a “rescue-and-recovery operation” to save the coffin from further deterioration.
On Friday, he said, “It was a very hot summer here.” “Exposed preserved wood would decay very quickly. It couldn’t wait even a few days, let alone weeks.”
Archaeologists examined the timbers and discovered it was a log coffin made of a hollowed-out tree buried beneath a mound. According to Tim Allen, an archaeologist with Historic England, a public agency charged with preserving the country’s history, using log coffins was “an unusual form of burial” that had briefly been practised 4,000 years ago in the Bronze Age.
According to the University of Sheffield, among the remains was a “perfectly preserved axe” with a stone head and a wooden handle.
The ancient timber and axe were placed in temporary cold storage to keep them stable while archaeologists tried to learn as much as they could about them before beginning the conservation process, which could slightly alter the appearance of the artefacts, according to Dr. Willmott.
Historic England contributed nearly 70,000 pounds (approximately $97,000) to the effort. The coffin was transported to the York Archaeological Trust, where it was expected to be conserved for another two years. Conservationists are still debating whether to attempt to reassemble the coffin, according to Ian Panter, the trust’s head of conservation.
“It will be like a big jigsaw puzzle,” he said in a video on the trust’s website. Mr. Panter stated that one end of the coffin is 2.4 metres (nearly eight feet) long and weighs half a tonne. According to the trust, the entire coffin is about three metres long and one metre wide.
According to Historic England, the coffin and axe will eventually be displayed at the Collection, an art and archaeology museum in Lincolnshire not far from the golf course. The man’s remains will be kept “in curated care” and are unlikely to be displayed, according to Dr. Willmott.
He went on to say that the man’s bones revealed that he was 5-foot-9 — “quite tall” for the time — and that he died in his late 30s or early 40s.
The bones also showed signs of osteoarthritis, which was caused by “heavy work rather than old age,” according to Dr. Willmott.
“He would have appeared to have gone to the gym,” he explained.
According to Dr. Willmott, the man’s burial indicated that he was a prominent member of his community.
“It is a bit of complicated technology to make a log coffin,” he explained.
Dr. Willmott explained that a gravel mound was built over the coffin, which would have required the efforts of many people, not just family members.
According to Mr. Allen, the axe was most likely ceremonial, a “symbol of authority.” He went on to say that carbon-14 dating could help them analyse the wood and determine when the tree was felled.
According to Mr. Allen, the time-consuming burial indicates that “this was a society with a hierarchy focused on certain individuals.”
Everyone involved in the project agreed not to publicise the discovery until an analysis was completed, according to Dr. Willmott.
He also stated that the golf course’s owner agreed to remain silent.
Dr. Willmott stated that the owner, Mark Casswell, was “quite keen for people not to know because he thought it might put off business.” “People are either creeped out by dead bodies or fascinated by them.”
On Friday, Mr. Casswell did not respond to messages seeking comment. In a statement, he expressed surprise that such a discovery had been made on his property.
“My family farmed here for years before we opened the golf course, and I would never have guessed there was a whole other world buried beneath the fields,” he said.
Mr. Casswell stated that as soon as the workers made the discovery, the golf course contacted local authorities, who put them in touch with Historic England.
Mr. Casswell stated that he intended to display a photograph of the axe on the clubhouse wall.
“It’s certainly something to consider as you play your way around the course,” he said.