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Wooden coffins were used very early ; remains of them, with the iron clamps by which they have been fastened together, have been found in barrows; for instance, in the barrow called Lamel hill, near York, which is made out by Dr. Thurnam to be of Saxon date, (Archæol. Journal, vol. v. p. 38.) A curious example of an early wood coffin formed of a hollow oak trunk is preserved in the museum at Scarborough.
There is a notice of the discovery of several wood coffins, near Halt whistle, Lancashire, in the Archæol. Æliana, vol. ii. p. 177. One which was perfect is described as “cut out of the boll of an oak tree, which has been split by the wedge, and hollowed out in a very rough manner, to admit the body (bones were found in it), the lid was secured at the head and feet by wooden pins.” From the rudeness of the workmanship these must have been of very early date. “The monk of Glastonbury says that King Arthur was buried in a trunk of oak hollowed, which proves, at least, that in his time this was an ancient mode of burial.”
Lead coffins too were in very early use; oblong lead coffins, the sides cast in ornamental moulds, were used by the Romans. King Stephen we read was buried in one: there are notices and engravings of several found in the Temple church, in Mr. Richardson's work on the restoration of the monuments there. They were used sparingly until the end of the fourteenth century, wlien they became more general. The old lead coffins were rather windingsheets of lead, for they fitted rudely to the shape of the body; their appearance agrees exactly with the idea conveyed in the ballad of the little St. Hugh of Lincoln,
“Scho roud him in a cake o' lead.” A representation of one found at Mauveysin Ridware,
Staffordshire, is given in Shaw's History of Staffordshire, Plate XI. p. 193. These were sometimes enclosed in a wooden chest or coffin, sometimes in a stone chest or altar-tomb, surmounted by an effigy or monumental brass. Thus the lead coffin of the bishop in the Temple church, was enclosed in a stone coffin, see p. 66.
Frequently the body was laid in the grave enclosed only in a winding-sheet, or sewed up in some garment, (perhaps occasionally a hide). In the representations of the Last Judgment which occur so frequently in illuminated MSS. of all dates, we constantly find the dead arising from open graves as well as from stone coffins.
In the splendid MSS. in the British Museum, called the Durham Gospels k, and which Mr. Westwood (Palæographia Sacra) makes out were written about the close of the seventh century, we find representations of the patriarchs folded in winding-sheets which fall loosely in large folds, being laid in the grave without any coffin, (pp. 11, 18, 44, 156, &c.) In an illumination of date c. A.D. 1180, of which there is a copy in the collection of the Archæological Institute, we see a body about to be committed to the grave, which is sewn up in front in some garment, and a cross is marked upon the face. In the Douce MS., No. 77, at p. 1, is a representation of a woman sewing up a naked corpse after this fashion in a white winding-sheet.
In the Gagnières collection there is an incised slab on which is represented a corpse sewn up in this manner, dated A.D. 1446.
It is rather singular that in most of these cases the body appears quite flexible.
There are also representations of corpses wrapped up after similar fashions, being placed in stone coffins, as in an entombment from the MS. of Matthew Paris, before mentioned,
Cott. MSS., Nero, D. IV.
fol. 198. Here, however, the corpse is swathed round and round with narrow fillets crossing in a lozenge pattern. In the Gospels of St. Augustine (Mr. Westwood's Palæographia Sacra) Lazarus is similarly represented, rising from the tomb: the date of this illuinination is sixth century. In a representation of the raising of Lazarus upon the fine Norman font at Lenton, Notts., Lazarus is swathed in this same manner, and is lying in a stone coffin, from which two men are raising the lid. And it is curious enough to find exactly the same custom still common in the sixteenth century; when we find children very frequently represented in this way on altar and mural tombs; there is a representation of one upon an incised slab at Morley, Derbyshire.
In an entombment in the Luttrell Psalter, the corpse, lying in a stone coffin, is enclosed in a tight winding-sheet, gathered at the neck, and marked with a row of small crosses down the body, the coped lid has a floriated cross upon it.
In an illumination in the Cott. MS., Claudius B. IV. folio 74, (date eleventh century,) the tight-fitting garment in which the corpse is wrapped is diapered with a pattern of quatrefoils within squares.
Other very interesting examples of similar character may be seen in the MSS., Bib. Reg. 14. cvii.; Nero, D. I. Harl. 603, Plut. xxviii. 1 &c.
The designs in both incised floor-crosses and coffinstones very much resemble one another; it will be convenient, having first treated of the peculiarities of coffinstones, then to treat of the designs of both together. Further inforination, which can be more conveniently introduced in that form, will be found in the notes to the several examples, page 59, et seq.
The cist of many stones which has frequently been found in cairns or tumuli of stones, and also in the soil, and which has generally been attributed to the British inhabitants of the island, may be considered as a species of rude stone coffin. Perhaps, however, the stone coffin in the modern meaning of the term, may be more immediately derived from the Roman sarcophagus orcist of a single block of stone. Many of these have been found in England; some of the later ones have roughly coped or arched lids.
In Swinton Park, Yorkshire, are two valuable examples of early cists; one like the proper stone coffin-has the base narrower than the top, and its lid is coped: the other has the lid rounded at the sides and ends, and flat at the top, like a flat-bottomed boat: both these are engraved in the Archæol. Journal, vol. v. p. 46. Mr. Tucker thinks that these belong to the end of the Romano-British period.
The proper stone coffin is formed of a single stone, (though examples do occur in which modern coffins are composed of two or more stones, at Llantwit for instance, see p. 87,) it is rather higher at the top than at the base, and in width tapers also from head to foot. Sometimes the interior excavation corresponds with the outside throughout; but very frequently the interior corresponds with the exterior only up to the shoulders, and then there is a small rounded excavation to fit the head ; see Plate Lxxiv. and the cut on the next page: frequently a small hole is found in the bottom, it is supposed, to let out the liquid which was used in preserving the bodies.
Some other varieties in the shape of the interior cavity occur, but they are neither numerous nor important; it is rather curious that most of these should be brought together in the corner of an ancient churchyard at Heysham, Lancashire, of which a representation is here given.
These graves are cut in the rock, the trench which surrounds them on two sides was for the foundation of the churchyard wall. It is difficult to determine the date of these graves; the church is most probably of Saxon date; another church was built at the foot of the hill in early Norman times, but the church here may also have been used, and even if not, interments may have taken place in the old churchyard, so that we cannot limit their date by this. Perhaps the most curious feature about them is the square excavation at the head of each, which was