Wydon Eals Log-Coffins
Old drawing of Wydon Eals coffins, made soon after their discovery in the 19th century.
Source: Reproduced from Snagge 1870.

Wydon Eals Log-Coffins

Three of the surviving coffins, photographed in 2009.
Source: Paul Frodsham.

Wydon Eals Log-Coffins

Close-up view of one of the surviving coffins, showing peg-hole for fixing of lid and axe marks caused by hollowing out of the log from which the coffin was made.
Source:  Paul Frodsham.

Wydon Eals Farm

General view of the Wydon Eals site in the early 21st century. Some thirteen centuries after the burials, there is absolutely nothing in the present-day landscape to suggest the previous significance of the site.
Source: Paul Frodsham.

The Tortie Stone
Original Location: Wydon Eals Farm, near Featherstone
Current Location: Various (see below)
Theme: Ritual
Period: Early medieval
Date: c.700 AD

What is it?
In 1825, while digging drains on Wydon Eals Farm, several timber coffins were located at a depth of some 5 feet. Writing in 1840, Hodgson describes these ‘mysterious and time-hallowed remains’ as ‘made of round boles of oak, riven in two and fastened down again with an oaken peg at each end’. Subsequent investigations in 1869 uncovered several more coffins, one of which contained a skull. The coffins look very much like dug-out canoes, which given their location adjacent to the river may not be entirely coincidental. A fascinating discussion of them was published by Snagge in 1873. Many probably still lie within the ground, but three survive in private ownership while another is reputed to be at Durham Cathedral though this has yet to be confirmed. Until recently they were undated, and thought by some archaeologists to be Bronze Age, but a sample of one was radiocarbon dated in 2011 to the late 7th or early 8th century.

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
The Wydon Eals site is unique, within the North Pennines and elsewhere. Hodgson records that several similar coffins were found in the 19th century eroding out of the old churchyard in Haltwhistle, adjacent to the South Tyne, one of which was displayed in the Market Place. However, there is no record of a church at Wydon Eals, although the land here is recorded in a document dated 1223 as ‘Temple Land’, and for some unknown reason was owned until the late 19th century by the Dean and Chapter of Carlisle. The radiocarbon date suggests that these burials date from within a generation or two of the lifetime of St Cuthbert, during the so-called Northumbrian Golden Age, but the extent to which they were influenced by pagan or Christian tradition remains open to question.  A very similar coffin was found at Quernmore, near Lancaster, in 1973; this contained traces of a body within a woollen shroud and provided a near-identical radiocarbon date to that from Wydon Eals, however this appears to be an isolated burial and there is nothing to suggest that it may have been Christian.

Why is it important?
The Wydon Eals coffins are fascinating objects in their own right, but the cemetery from which they came potentially holds many clues to aspects of life and death in South Tynedale during the 7th and 8th centuries, a time about which very little is known throughout the North Pennines. The site was investigated through the digging of two trenches in 2011, but no further coffins were encountered; this may be because the ground has dried up somewhat as a result of the 19th-century drainage operations, but on balance it is probable that further coffins do survive for future investigation. Questions such as who the people were that were buried here, whether they were Christian, and where they lived, are for now unanswerable.

Further Information
    Text References:
  • Hodgson, J. 1840. History of Northumberland, vol 4, p350.
  • Hutton W. & J Blenkinsopp Coulson. 1825. Accounts of some ancient wooden coffins discovered not far from Haltwhistle, in the County of Northumberland….. Letters published in Archaeologia Aeliana 1st series vol 2, p177.
  • Snagge, T. W. 1870. Some Account of Ancient Oaken Coffins discovered on the lands adjoining  Featherstone Castle, near Haltwhistle, Northumberland. Archaeologia Aeliana 1st series vol 44, p8-16.

 


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