Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Wydon Eals Coffins (NY682624)

(image from Archaeologia Aeliana, 1st series, vol 44, 1870)

A little to the north of Featherstone Castle there sits Wydon Eals Farm. Many of the fields hereabouts are rather soggy, low-lying affairs, sitting, as they do, near the River South Tyne. Two centuries ago, a few yards to the NE of the farm, workmen digging drains made an extraordinary discovery in the shape of several ancient log coffins.

The oaken caskets, uncovered in 1825, had been preserved by the swampy conditions, though what few bodily remains still contained within soon turned to dust when exposed to the air. In time, more were discovered – in 1859, 1863 and 1869 – and it is likely that still more remain underground. The most substantial body part found intact across all the finds was that of a skull fragment.

As can be seen from the illustrations, the primitive coffins have the appearance of hollowed-out canoes held together by pegs. For decades they were thought to date from the Bronze Age (c.2500BC – c.800BC), but scientific examination of one of the artefacts in 2011 placed them squarely in the Dark Ages at around the late 7th – early 8th centuries. Obviously, the site must have been a small cemetery of sorts, though there is no other evidence around and about to support the theory.

Some of the coffins found their way into the hands of the Society of Antiquaries in Newcastle, and others were kept at nearby Featherstone Castle – with one possibly ending up in Durham Cathedral. No one will perhaps ever know anything of the people who planted these relics (whether, for example, they were Christian or Pagan), although the land hereabouts is recorded as ‘Temple Land’ in 1223, and was at one time owned by the Dean and Chapter of Carlisle.

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