Golf course workers dig up 4000-year-old tree trunk coffin with warrior skeleton holding ax

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Rare find is one of 65 known graves in Britain

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It is not uncommon for construction workers to dig in Britain to unearth ancient ruins and skeletons. Many date from the Roman era, which lasted from 43 CE to 410 CE. But sometimes even older finds emerge, like workers on a golf course discovered while excavating a small pond.

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The Tetney Golf Club is located by the North Sea, halfway up the east coast of England, 10 km south of the town of Grimsby, on the marshy lands surrounding the mouth of the River Humber. When workers were digging in the pond a few years ago, the machine bucket hit something hard, which is unusual in soft soil.

Some four meters below the surface, the team found “an extremely rare prehistoric coffin” containing a skeleton, the New York Times Reports. The three-meter-long and three-meter-wide coffin was actually a huge hollowed out oak tree, now shattered into pieces and soon starting to deteriorate as the air hit it. Such log burials were carried out around 4,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age, and, with an ax still in man’s hand, denoted an individual of high rank as the effort to cutting, lifting and lowering such a heavy object (around 450 kg) would have required a lot of labor.

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York Archeological Trusts Ian Panter moves part of the tree's coffin into his preservation bath.
York Archeological Trusts Ian Panter moves part of the tree’s coffin into his preservation bath. Photo by York Archeological Trust via YouTube

The man’s surprisingly small but perfectly preserved ax had a stone head and a wooden handle, according to the University of Sheffield. The university said the body was laid on a bed of plants – likely a mixture of yew leaves and juniper branches – and a mound of gravel was erected over the grave. These were practices reserved for people of high status.

Ian Panter, Conservation Officer at York Archeological Trust, holds the remarkably well-preserved ax.
Ian Panter, Conservation Officer at York Archeological Trust, holds the remarkably well-preserved ax. Photo by Charlotte Graham

Dr Hugh Willmott, archaeologist and senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield, was at a nearby site when news of the find reached him. “Fortunately,” he told The Times, “I and a team of staff and students from the Archeology Department at the University of Sheffield were working on a nearby research and training dig.

“It was a very hot summer here. The preserved wood exposed would decompose very quickly. He couldn’t wait for days, let alone weeks. He gathered his team and started the recovery and backup operation the next day.

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Historic England said preservation work for the ax was now complete, but two years of work needed to be done on the tree’s coffin and its cover, including enclosing them in advanced resins and UV-resistant coatings . They are waiting for the carbon-14 dating of the fast-growing tree. The objects will be exhibited to the public at Museum of collections to Lincoln after all work is complete.

Only 65 tree burials have been found in Britain, and only 12 similar axes have been saved. It is rare to find either one in such a condition as Tetney’s, as it usually deteriorates over time.

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“The man buried in Tetney lived in a very different world from ours but, like ours, it was a changing environment,” the agency added. “Rising sea levels and coastal flooding eventually covered his grave and burial mound with a deep layer of silt which helped to preserve it.”

Mark Casswell Golf Club Owner told the BBC his family had farmed the land for years and never imagined “there was a whole other world out there buried under the fields.”

The location by the pond has now been protected as a listed monument by the British Secretary of State.

“We will have a nice photo on the wall of the clubhouse,” Casswell said. “It’s definitely something to think about as you play your way down the course.”

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