Hollowed-Out, 4,000-Year-Old Tree Trunk Coffin Discovered in Golf Course Pond

The rare Bronze Age sarcophagus contained human remains, an ax and plant bedding

The tree trunk coffin
The 4,000-year-old wooden coffin will go on display following extensive conservation work. York Archaeological Trust

In July 2019, construction workers renovating a pond at a golf course in Tetney, England, stumbled onto a 4,000-year-old wooden coffin. Now, reports BBC News, the Bronze Age relic is set to go on display at the Collection Museum in Lincoln after undergoing extensive preservation work.

Per a statement from the University of Sheffield, the half-ton sarcophagus contained human remains, an ax and plants used as a bed for the deceased. Made from the hollowed-out trunk of an oak tree, it was buried beneath a gravel mound—a practice typically reserved for elite members of Bronze Age society. The coffin measures around ten feet long and three feet wide.

“It’s amazing how well-preserved the ax is with its handle still there like it was made yesterday,” Mark Casswell, owner of Tetney Golf Club, tells BBC News. “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.”

Wooden objects like shipwrecks and coffins are prone to rapid deterioration upon their removal from water or soil and exposure to sunlight and air, notes Isaac Schultz for Gizmodo. Luckily, researchers from Sheffield were working nearby when the objects were discovered and offered to help with preservation efforts.

“[W]hen the burial was found, myself and a team of staff and students … were working on a nearby research and training excavation,” says archaeologist Hugh Wilmott in the statement. “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.”

To prevent the ax from deteriorating, archaeologist Adam Daubney placed the artifact in a bag filled with groundwater, as he recounts on Twitter. The coffin, meanwhile, was kept in cold storage for a year before being moved to York Archaeological Trust (YAT), where conservators began the arduous process of restoring it. To aid these efforts, Historic England awarded the project almost £70,000 (around $96,000).

A major highlight of the find was the ax, which has a “perfectly preserved” wooden handle and a stone head, as Willmott writes on Twitter. The Guardian’s Mark Brown notes that the ax is one of just 12 of its kind ever found in Britain; the researchers suspect that the artifact was a marker of authority rather than an everyday tool.

The sarcophagus itself is also incredibly rare. Researchers have only uncovered about 65 early Bronze Age log coffins in Britain to date, writes Ellis Karran for the Lincolnite.

The final element of the burialthe plant bedding—proved “most exciting” to Willmott, he notes on Twitter. Made up of moss, yew or juniper, hazelnuts, and leaf buds, the selection of organic material suggests the deceased was interred in late spring. Speaking with Gizmodo, Willmott adds that the hazelnuts could have been a food offering, while the moss may have functioned as a bed for the coffin’s occupant.

Per Gizmodo, initial attempts to extract DNA from the remains have proven unsuccessful. Efforts to precisely date the coffin are ongoing and will involve both radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology.

“The man buried at Tetney lived in a very different world to ours,” says Tim Allen, a Sheffield-based archaeologist for Historic England, in a separate YAT statement, “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.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.