Pre-History -  A Bronze Age Tree Burial at Scale House Barrow

The Reverend Greenwell excavated the barrow in 1864, and we are grateful to the late Richard Hartland (RH) for some additional information relating to the barrow and similar coffin burials via personal communication).

During the years 1860-69 Captain Blake, steward to the Earl of Burlington, resided at Scale House, Rylstone. The adjoining Scale Hill Farm, on which the barrow stands, would be within his domain. In 1863 the centre of the barrow was dug into by the farm tenant, breaking through the coffin and disturbing part of its contents. The following year, Canon William Greenwell, arrived on the scene to make as good an excavation of the previous year’s dig and the techniques of the period allowed.

His description is as follows: 'the mound 30 feet in diameter, 5 feet high, made of clay, shallow trench close to the base completely encircling the mound. Currently its diameter is almost 50 feet with a smooth profile and no vestige of a ditch, so it has been “landscaped”. Immediately below the surface of the barrow, at the centre, was a layer of flat stones, c.6’ in diameter, carefully arranged. Under these the clay was firmly compacted and rested on a thin stratum of dark-coloured earthy matter which was very full charged with charcoal.'

(At Grisethorpe a tree trunk coffin was excavated in 1834 – a layer of branches lay over the coffin, so might the ‘charcoal’ be the remains of branches? The Tree Trunk Coffin was at that time displayed in Scarborough Museum.RH described the Grisethorpe coffin as follows:

'Beneath this again was a layer of finer clay or rather clay which appeared to have undergone a process of tempering, below this finer clay and carefully embedded in it, was an oaken coffin laid upon clay and to some extent supported by a few stones, the whole being placed in a light hollow sunk below the surface of the ground.

The coffin was formed of the trunk of an oak tree split in two and then hollowed out. It was 7 ¼ foot long and 1 foot 11 inches wide; the trunk had been cut off at each end and then partially rounded, but on the outside no attempt at squaring or other workmanship had interfered with the natural surface of the timber. The hollow within was 6 feet 4 inches long and 1 foot wide, roughly hewn out, and still showing the marks of the tool employed; the ends inside were finished off square. It was not possible to make out the nature of the tool which had been employed, but the appearances warranted the conclusion that it had been a narrow-edged metal implement.

The coffin was very much broken in consequence of the disturbance before mentioned; it was however still sufficiently entire to allow its arrangement to be seen. It was laid north and south, having the thicker end – where the head of the enclosed body no doubt had been placed - to the south. The body had entirely gone due to decay and nothing was observed which might have formed a constituent part of it except an unctuous whitish substance, which chemical analysis has proved to be of animal origin (1). The corpse had been enveloped in a woollen fabric, enough of which remained to show that it had reached from head to foot. It was very rotten, and partly on that account, and partly by reason of the infiltration of the earth which had found its way into the coffin through the breakage occurring when the barrow was first opened, and which had become mixed up with the cloth, it was impossible to recover any but small pieces of it, or to prove whether the body had been laid in the grave in its ordinary dress or simply wrapped in a shroud. It is on the whole probable that in this case, as in those of some tree-burials discovered in Denmark the person had been interred in the dress worn by him in daily life, though perhaps it may be alleged that the absence of anything like a button or other fastening is rather against that view.

 

The material is now of a dark-brown colour, due most likely to the tannin in the of the coffin; whilst to the acid generated in the decaying wood and set free by the percolation of water is perhaps to be attributed the total disappearance of the bones. There was nothing found in the coffin besides the woollen stuff; nor, with the exception of pieces of charcoal and some burnt earth, was anything met with foreign to the ordinary material of the rest of the barrow.

In the absence of any associated articles in the coffin, or of potsherds or flints in the mound itself, it is difficult to assign a precise date or period to this remarkable burial. But if we take the general shape and construction of this barrow into consideration, as also the encircling ditch, the presence of charcoal and other indications of burning, I see no reason for hesitating to refer it to the people whose usual custom it was to place the body of the dead person in a stone cist or in a grave within the barrow; merely supposing that in this and in a few other instances they departed from their ordinary practices in favour of a wooden receptacle.

And when we compare this burial with some others found in this country, and with those which have occurred in Denmark, we can further have little doubt about attributing it to the time when bronze was in use for weapons and implements. The mode of interment in the trunk of as hollowed tree placed within a barrow is no doubt rare, although burials in cleft and hollowed trees placed in the ground without any super incumbent grave-mound are not so uncommon; many of them however are not to be referred to a very early period, and indeed probably belong to a time several centuries after the Christian era.'

 

In Northumberland, several wooden coffins like this were found near Featherstone Castle, Wyden Eels, in a wet situation; bones entirely decayed except for one instance where bones remained, resembling old leather. The hollows within the bones were filled with the mineral Viviamite. Bones found in peat bogs sometimes are in the same condition, the change in them is due to the action of the carbonic acid generated in the peat.

Radiocarbon dating has recently been done on the Rylstone oak coffin and the woollen material from the Rylstone log-coffin burial (Melton et al. 2016). It has shown that the dates were c. 800 bc. the cusp of the Bronze Age - Iron  Age transition. This means that the Rylstone burial is only one of two sites in Britain and is unparalleled in north-western Europe at a time when disposal of the dead was primarily through dispersed cremated or unburnt dis articulated remains. The other coffin burials have been found on radiocarbon dating to be ad 430-970.

Photograph of the woollen clothing from the Craven Museum, Skipton.

Photograph of a piece of timber from the Tree Burial.

References

 

Greenwell, W. and Rolleston G. (1877). British Barrows, A Record of the Examination of Sepulchral Mounds in Various Parts of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Grinsell, L.V. (2nd Ed. 1953). The Ancient Burial Mounds of England.  London: Methuen & co.

Melton, N.D., Montgomery, J., Roberts, B. W., Cook, G. and Harris, S. (2016). On the Curious Date of the Rylstone Log-Coffin Burial. Available on-line at https://doi.org/10.1017/ppr.2016.5.  

Williamson, W.C. (3rd Ed. 1872). Description of the Tumulus opened at Gristhorpe near Scarborough. Scarborough: S. W. Theakston.

 

Williamson, W. C. (1896). Reminiscences of a Yorkshire Naturalist. London: George Redway.

                  Article from Times Past Magazine

(Winter 2005-2006)

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