A link to the Lancashire Dark Ages was revealed when a car park was being constructed for the Jubilee Tower near Quernmore. In 1973 a local man, James Marshall was walking his dog near the folly, when his attention was caught by a wooden object sticking out of the soil. A mechanical digger had been involved in cutting a drain for the new car park, and in the process of removing the peat had revealed what looked like a canoe. Staff from Lancaster City Museum were called to the site, and they discovered that there were actually two of these boat shaped objects. The first was largely intact, but the second had been severely damaged by the machine. All was not lost though, as the second one could in large part be reassembled.
The team kept the wooden objects and their mysterious contents from degrading by using wet newspaper and polythene sheets- without this quick intervention the wood would have dried out and spilt, perhaps even disintegrated on being exposed to the surrounding air. Upon examination the two boat like objects turned out to be the top and bottom parts of an oak coffin originally pegged together, with each half shaped like a dug out canoe. The upper half had been damaged first by plant roots and then shattered by the digger.
Inside the coffin were two pieces of woolen cloth. They had been originally been one large sheet in the shape of a square, but a corner had been cut off. The cloth was a 5 foot burial shroud that contained the remains of a body- not the skeleton, it had long since disintegrated into the acidic soil. All that was left was the deceased’s hair along with their finger and toe nails. These are all made of keratin, which are more durable than bone in peatlands. The shroud is the largest piece of fabric that has been discovered from this era. The body had been lain diagonally across it, so that it could be enclosed from head to foot. Unfortunately the feet were not covered as the sheet was not large enough. This led the people who prepared the corpse to cut off a triangular portion of the cloth from one side, which they wrapped separately around the feet.
The radiocarbon date from the wood put it at 1340 years before the present (with an error factor of plus or minus 110 years), so the burial occurred some time around the 600- 700 AD mark. This placed it firmly in the Dark Ages for Lancashire- which to the historian really are dark as little is known about the region at that time. Interestingly, some similar burials of oak boat shaped coffins, again in two parts and pegged together have been found in the North Pennines. These were discovered at Wydon Eals Farm in Featherstone and a little further north at the old churchyard at Haltwhistle. The radiocarbon date of the finds at Featherstone is similar to our one at Quernmore, so we are clearly looking at a style of burial from the early Saxon era.
What is the significance of the shape of the coffins in these burials ? When they were first found, they were recorded as ‘boat burials’. Clearly they look like dug out canoes, but whether this has a ritual significance or is just a common wood working technique of the time, is not known. The carefully prepared coffin was slotted into a place in the clay that underlay the 18 inches of peat above. The setting was and is still now a very dramatic one, with views of the Irish Sea, the Cumbrian mountains and the Bowland fells.
Today the remains of the coffin are on display at Lancaster City Museum, having been donated by Lady Sefton on whose land it was discovered. It goes without saying that the museum is superb, and always worth a visit. It’s also worth going to the Quernmore site where you can view the plaque and enjoy the amazing scenery from the top of the Jubilee Tower.
The car park for Jubilee Tower contains the plaque for the Quernmore Burial. The easiest way to reach the car park is to follow Wyresdale Road from Williamson Park in Lancaster which will take you straight there. If you are coming from another direction then the postcode for the monument on the Visit Lancashire website is LA2 9HJ- but navigate with a road map as well ! The tower is also marked on Google Maps.
Just across the road…. Jubilee Tower See the full blog post on Jubilee Tower by clicking here
The Quernmore Burial Mystery, Dr A.J. White (2001) Lancaster City Museums
Museum Notes 1) The Quernmore Boat Burial, A.J. White http://lahs.archaeologyuk.org/Contrebis/1-19-White.pdf (retrieved 22/10/16)
Historic England Pastscape website http://www.pastscape.org.uk Monument No. 42869 (retrieved 22/10/16)
North Pennines Virtual Museum website http://www.npvm.org.uk/objects/06/index.htm (retrieved 22/10/16)