Young Viking era woman buried in timber coffin beneath lost York church goes on display

By Ben Miller Published: 03 December 2015

Young woman could have lived during rule of Canute, appointed 999 years ago

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A total of 15 trenches were excavated in the Swinegate area of York in 1989 and 1990© YAT
The emergence of a female skeleton from the late Viking period in the lost churchyard of St Benet, in York, might have been somewhat expected without the circumstances of the woman’s burial.

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A complex sequence of deposits dated from Roman times to the post-medieval period© YAT
Between late 1989 and early 1990, more than 100 bodies were found largely intact by archaeologists investigating the Swinegate area, their fragile timber coffins saved by the soil surrounding their remains.

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New work to carbon date six of the skeletons was carried out this year© YAT
“For archaeologists studying Viking history, finding a skeleton preserved in a wooden coffin is a unique find indeed,” observes Sarah Maltby, of the York Archaeological Trust. “Timber rarely survives for so long – but that is precisely what we have.

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Four of the skeletons examined were in coffins or under wooden covers, while two lay in graves with no associated coffins© YAT
“What our archaeologists unearthed represents a series of previously undisturbed burials with complete skeletons, some of which date back more than 1,000 years. Once again, as we found in the Coppergate dig of the late 1970s, York’s waterlogged soil conditions preserved the timber of several coffins, including this one.”

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This skeleton was buried with a grave marker stone© YAT
St Benet stood between the 8th and early 14th centuries, with the burials dating from the occupation between 866 and 1066. The woman may have witnessed the reign of King Canute, who assumed the throne in 1016, and could only have been carried a short distance in her delicate coffin.

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One of the burials with its lid removed© YAT
The reasons for her death, aged between 26 and 35, remain unclear, although bone analysis has shown inadequate nutrition or disease as a child and degenerative joint disease in the spine and hips.

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The popular nine men's morris game was carved onto a plank above this burial© YAT
“The coffin is made from oak with pegged fastenings,” says Maltby. “You can see that during construction, the piece of timber used for the lid of the coffin split and was repaired using a baton fastened inside, with the pegs cut flush on the outer surface to make the repair less obvious.”

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The swinegate area lies within a fortress found in around AD 71© YAT
The coffin and skeleton have now gone on display in the final, Viking-related gallery at the Jorvik Viking Centre, where installations in 2016 will focus on the Canute Millennial celebrations.

The Swinegate Skeletons

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Archaeologists say the discovery of the Viking period female skeleton is extremely rare© YAT
  • A wooden board which covered the grave of a child aged between one and two-and-a-half years old has also gone on display, with a nine-men’s merril board etched onto the upper surface. The meaning of the game is uncertain, although the game is ancient and certainly widely known after the Norman Conquest – there are 18 different examples of this game carved as graffiti into later medieval churches.

  • The dig uncovered evidence of the Roman occupation of York around AD71, with stone used in the construction of those buildings later removed and reused.

  • The church of St Benet was built on the site sometime between St Benedict Biscop’s death in 689 and before the late 9th or early 10th centuries. The church was demolished between 1299 and 1307.

  • The waterlogged soil conditions preserved the wood of around 38 burials, with fragments of further coffins also evident.

Conservator Steve Allen and osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst will discuss the Swinegate Skeletons at Jorvik on February 17 2015. Book tickets online.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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All six skeletons studied suffered from very little post-mortem fragmentation© YAT
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This metalled surface made up one of the trenches, pictured with later posts© YAT
Three museums to discover Vikings in

National Maritime Museum Cornwall, Falmouth
Featuring nationally and internationally historically significant artefacts, the Viking Voyagers exhibition explores what is behind the popular myth of the bloodthirsty raiders, what it meant to become a Viking and shows how their mastery of maritime technology was the secret to their success.

Kirkleatham Museum, Redcar
Current exhibition The Saxon Princess includes precious metal jewellery, beads and a reconstruction of the Royal bed burial will form part of the exhibition, as well as a replica Anglo-Saxon house, an audio-visual display and the chance to learn how these people lived their lives.

Historylinks Museum, Sutherland
The permanent exhibition here shows the Cathedral, feuding clans, the shameful burning of Scotland’s last condemned witch and the treachery and violence of Picts and Vikings.
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: