An extremely rare skeletal find joins the displays at JORVIK Viking Centre this month, as one of the Swinegate skeletons, uncovered during archaeological excavations in 1990, goes on public display for the first time.
The female skeleton was found as part of a larger excavation in the Swinegate area of York by York Archaeological Trust (YAT) which took place in late 1989 and early 1990. The dig explored the churchyard of the lost church of St Benet, which stood on the site from around the 8th to the early 14th century. Over 100 burials were discovered at the site, several of which date from the period of York’s Viking occupation, between AD 866 and AD 1066. The skeleton on display is thought to date from the late Viking period, possibly a woman who was alive during the reign of King Canute, who took the English throne 999 years ago in 1016. What makes the Swinegate finds unusual is that many of the timber coffins in which the bodies were buried remain largely intact.
“For archaeologists studying Viking history, finding a skeleton preserved in a wooden coffin is a unique find indeed – as timber rarely survives for so long – but that is precisely what we have in this display,” comments Sarah Maltby, director of attractions for York Archaeological Trust. “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, so what our archaeologists unearthed represents a series of previously undisturbed burials with complete skeletons, some of which date back more than 1000 years.”
The condition of the wood gives this coffin national significance, as so few similar examples exist – particularly as this coffin would have been fairly fragile when first constructed, which tells archaeologists that it would have only been transported a short distance for burial. The coffin was made for a young woman, estimated at being aged between 26 and 35. Recent analysis of the bones reveals some of her life story– including that she had inadequate nutrition or disease as a child and degenerative joint disease in the spine and hips – but there is no indication of the cause of her death.
Over the last few weeks YAT’s conservation team have undertaken a thorough examination of the coffin to determine its structure and reveal how it was constructed. “The coffin is made from oak with pegged fastenings, and 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,” adds Sarah.
The coffin and skeleton are on display in the final gallery of the JORVIK Viking Centre, representing the late Viking period which will be a focus of new installations in 2016 as part of the Canute Millennial celebrations. The national commemorations of King Canute will start in February as part of the 32nd JORVIK Viking Festival, and indeed, those interested in hearing more about the Swinegate Skeletons can do so on Wednesday 17 February, when conservator Steve Allen and osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst share detailed findings about the skeleton in a special lecture.
JORVIK Viking Centre is open daily from 10.00am to 4.00pm. Admission prices are £10.25 for adults, £8.25 for concessions and £7.25 for children, with family tickets available for £30.95 (two adults and two children) or £32.95 (two adults and three children). For more details and online bookings, please visit www.jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk or call 01904 615505 to prebook tickets.
Notes to editors
The dig at Swinegate was undertaken ahead of the redevelopment of the Swinegate and Grape Lane area in 1989 and 1990. 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/early 10th century (coffins dating from this period were uncovered during the dig). 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. Preservation of such quality is exceptionally rare, making this collection highly unusual. The coffins are currently being researched as part of the Museum Resilience Fund, with more information planned to be added to the new JORVIK Viking Centre exhibition as it becomes available.
Also on display is a wooden board which covered the grave of a child aged 1-2½ years. This rare find had a nine-men’s merril board etched onto the upper surface, the meaning of which is uncertain, although the game is ancient, and certainly widely known after the Norman Conquest as there are 18 different examples of this game carved as graffiti into later medieval churches.
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