In 1822 a group of workers building a new road near Claughton Hall cut through a sandy mound in the area now known as Sandhole Wood. By doing so they discovered a Viking burial mound (or ‘hlaew’) and uncovered its grave goods a few feet below the surface.
Whether the site contained one or two individuals is not clear, but looking at the contents can give us some idea of who might have been buried there. A baked clay pot of cremated ashes was broken by the workmen at the time of the discovery, and both content and pot are now lost. No bones were discovered, and if there had once been some they would have been destroyed by the acidic sandy soil long ago. The artefacts can be split into two groups along fairly traditional interpretation lines- one set consists of jewellery usually associated with women and the other group are weapons usually associated with men.
The jewellery consists of a pair of ‘tortoise style’ brooches, a smaller silver brooch and two beads. These have all been preserved and are on permanent display at the Harris Museum in Preston. A tortoise brooch consists of two shells- a lower gilt bronze one lies beneath an upper perforated one. The lower one would catch the light while the upper one has a decorative animal-like patterns. They were worn in pairs to hold a Viking woman’s pinafore style garment in place. Intriguingly, the tortoise brooches had been put together to form a box and inside were found a red and blue bead, as well as a molar tooth. The tooth could have survived the acidic conditions as there are reports that the twin brooches were in some form of container, probably made of wood and lined with fabric. The silver brooch was a re-used piece of jewellery from a sword belt, originating from the Carolingian empire of west Europe.
The male artefacts consisted of four Viking iron weapons: a spearhead, an axe head, a hammer head and a sword. Contemporary drawings were made of these soon after the discovery and these still survive, but unfortunately the weapons have been lost. Intriguingly there was also a Bronze Age stone axe hammer head amongst the collection.
So what are we to make of this ? Firstly let’s look at the Bronze Age axe hammer head and cremated ashes in a pot. Cremations are common in the Bronze Age burial mounds, but rare in the Viking times. These finds have led some to think that this was a prehistoric burial that was later re-used by the Vikings. This interpretation is plausible, but historians note that it does not look like a Bronze Age site and axe hammers were rarely found in prehistoric graves. More likely that the axe hammer had been discovered by a Viking and perhaps kept as a symbol of Thor, the hammer wielding sky god. A second rougher Bronze Age stone axe was found in 1899 half a mile to the north which shows there was prehistoric activity within the area. Further evidence that this cremation urn was Viking is that another burial site at Inskip five miles away also had a pot of ashes and a Viking sword.
If it was a double burial of a Viking man and woman that would account for the male and female artefacts, but not for the fact that only one cremation pot was found. There are female burials with weapons, so it could have been a solitary woman, or it could have been a solitary man with keepsakes of a woman- perhaps his wife.
Viking hlaews are rare in England and there are only 50-60 known ones. They often mark territorial boundaries. Accordingly this important site became a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 1999. The site is in Sandhole Wood (which is private), but the original road that led to its discovery is a public highway and goes right by where the mound once was. The Historic England website map shows the site is right by the wooden fence and so curious visitors can go and have a look without trespassing. The website estimates that the original mound measured 17 metres East to West by 13 metres North to South, but was not very tall and so probably thought to be insignificant when the road was made. Historic England also state that a wide but very shallow ditch survives as an earthwork around part of the monument, but the site has been damaged by road construction, sand quarrying and tree root damage. For a full description of where to look, see the Access section below. We couldn’t see much evidence on our visit- but it was late spring and the wood was heavily shaded by the tree canopy and covered in bluebells- although it’s still well worth a look.
The brooches are on permanent display in the Discover Preston Gallery at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery. See below for details of opening times.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2017
Visiting the Claughton Hlaew site: The site is on private land, but can be viewed from the road. Park at Claughton Memorial Hall or on the road just next to it. Proceed to the junction and head southwards down Lodge Road and keep going until you reach the part with trees on either side. Sandhole Wood is on your right. Head down to where the wood nearly stops on your right hand side. Take a copy of the Historic England map with you (see here -note that the webpage allows you to print out a better quality map as a pdf file). From the map it looks like the road would have gone through the mound and you can see the area of the site should be on your right (interestingly the Historic England webpage says that the fence posts are excluded from the scheduling, implying that they run through the remnants of the hlaew) . If you walk as far south as the emergency access road to the M6 motorway, you’ve gone too far- but only just. There is some local traffic on Lodge Road- expect a vehicle every couple of minutes or so, but you can step into the verge easily as it passes.
Grid Reference for OS maps or A-Z map books: 513 424
Visiting the Harris Museum and Art Gallery: to view the brooches in the Discover Preston Gallery : Opening Times: Open every day and entry is free (see here )
Vikings in North West England: The Artifacts, B.J.N. Edwards (1998), Centre for North-West Regional Studies, University of Lancaster
Viking Treasure from the North West: The Cuerdale Hoard in its Context, selected papers from The Vikings of the Irish Sea conference, Liverpool 18-20 May 1990, edited by James Graham-Campbell (1992), National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside
The Claughton Viking Burial, B.J.N. Edwards (1969), Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire Volume 121
The History of the Wyre, Michelle Harris and Brian Hughes (2009) Harris & Hughes
Walks around Historic Bleasdale, John Dixon and Jaana Jarvinen (1998) , Carnegie Press
The Story of Preston, edited by Jennifer Holden (undated booklet publication), Harris Museum and Art Gallery
Historic England https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1018918