Evidence of chests from Anglo-Saxon England

From Vikings Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Evidence for chests in Anglo-Saxon England

Those who owned land in several places lived a peripatetic life and we know that in the later medieval period they took their soft furnishings with them. If this was also true in the Anglo-Saxon period, some secure means of packing them would seem desirable. The text known as “the Discriminating Reeve” (page 32 of Anglo-Saxon Prose, Translated by Michael Swanton, published by Everyman, 1993 edition) and thought to have been written in the 10th or 11th Century, includes a list of items that the reeve should ensure that the estate possesses. This list includes both chests and coffers.

The Will of Wynflaed (Anglo-Saxon Prose, Translated by Michael Swanton, published by Everyman, 1993 edition) includes reference to chests. Page 53 includes: “And to Ælfwold ----- And she bequeaths to him two chests and in them bedding – all that goes with one bed. Page 54 includes “And to Æthelflæd the White ----------And there are two big chests, and a clothes-chest and a little weaving-box and also two old chests.” This will is thought to date to about 950 a.d.

From these texts we can see that for the later Anglo-Saxon period we can see that:

  • Chests were in use and had been for long enough for some to be described as “old”.
  • Chests varied in size.
  • Chests were used for the storage of bedding and clothing (this does not exclude other uses).
  • Since they were being bequeathed they must have been capable of being transported.

These texts do not tell us anything about the actual size, shape or construction.

Archaeological evidence

I am not aware of any archaeological evidence in which chests have been found in domestic contexts. However, Anglo-Saxon burial practice was extremely varied. Only a small proportion of the dead seem to have been buried in a coffin or something that resembles a coffin although the proportion known is almost certainly an underestimate. The evidence for coffins is often confined to soil stains although there is some evidence for the limited use of nails. Some of the “coffined” burials also include other iron work such as angle brackets, hinges and even locks. While these could be residual or intrusive or from items used as grave goods their location within the grave suggests that they are from the container in which the body was buried.

The first question to be answered is the nature of the container. Was this a custom made coffin which was provided with hinges and a lock for some reason that we can no longer identify, or was it a chest pressed into service as a coffin? Several factors point to the later explanation:

  • In some cases the body had to be laid out in the normal manner.
  • Although provided with locks the locks were not engaged.
  • There is evidence of repair (e.g. pegged construction with a few nails which were through the pegs).
  • It is sometimes possible to identify wear on the hinges.

The remaining questions are to do with the size, shape and construction of these chests. This requires the examination of the evidence from individual burials. I only have easy access to the reports for some of them and the fragmentary nature of the evidence means that the answers will need to be a synthesis of the available information. Only fairly large chests could be used as coffins so smaller ones may have existed as well.

Excavations at York Minster, HMSO 1995 – Four graves appear to have contained chests used as coffins. Unfortunately none of the graves could be excavated in their entirety. Page 83 includes the comment “The intimation that these coffins had originally been domestic storage chests was given by the presence of metalwork redundant in coffin construction: among the abundant iron strapping were hinges and lock mechanisms. Moreover, the design of some of the straps showed that the coffin sides extended downwards to contain a base raised by about 10 mm “

Burial 76 – Early to mid 9th C. Made from radially cut Oak and about 20mm thick. Width 0.41 – 0.46m (1’ 4” – 1’ 6”). Minimum height 0.35m (1’ 1”) and possibly 0.45m (1’ 5”). The length cannot be measured but the body was apparently buried extended and was an adult female so a length of > 1.5m seems likely. This appears to have been rectangular and the sides overlapped the base.

Burial 78 – Mid to late 9th Century. Only the lower half of the grave was present and within this area there was no lock so identification as a chest is tentative. Depth estimated to be at least .226m. Adult male with nothing to indicate that the body was not fully extended so could be up to 6 foot long. Made from radially cut Oak and about 20mm thick with nothing to suggest that it was other than a rectangular box.

Burial 79 – Early 10th C. The body was partially on its side and with the head hunched forward to make the body fit the container. Body probably male and 12 to 15 years old. From the plan we are probably talking about 1.3m long. Made from radially cut Oak and about 20mm thick with nothing to suggest that it was other than a rectangular box.

Burial 81 – Late 9th or early 10th C. – Made from radially cut Oak but with one tangential board. Planks 0.2m wide. Width 0.406, (1’ 4”). Extended mature male so the chest must have been about 6’ long. Bottom fitted into a grove about 10 mm above the bottom of the sides. Rectangular construction.

The Cemetery At Wearmouth – (Wearmouth & Jarrow Monastic Sites – Volume 2, Rosemary Cramp, English Heritage, 2006) The finds from the cemetery at Wearmouth were dissociated from their graves so no details of sizes are available. Never the less some potentially useful conclusions can be reached.

  • The angle irons were mounted so that their long axes were parallel to the direction of the wood grain. This means that unlike the Viking Sea-chest the ends may have had their grain horizontal.
  • All other plates and hinges were mounted so that their long axes were at 90° to the direction of the grain.
  • Plank thickness was between 16 and 20 mm.
  • There is no evidence (no staples or cleats) of any face being made of more than one plank.
  • In general the sparsity of metal fittings (angle irons and nails) suggests that some other construction technique was employed, i.e. wooden pegs or carpentry joints.

Rosemary Cramp describes these structures as coffins rather than chests. The reason is not clearly stated but seems to be that the metalwork is considered to be rather crude when compared to contemporary material from other sites. The conclusions reached are stated as being similar to those reached for the material from Whithorn.

Ripon - Settlement and Monasticism at Ripon, R. A. Hall and Mark Whyman, Medieval Archaeology Vol 40, Pages 62 – 150. Burial 1043 – This burial contained a lock and a corner bracket. The body was extended and about 1.69 m tall. Container made from Radially formed oak planks with a thickness of 24 mm. +.

Burial 1045 – Body buried extended and will have been about 1.85 m tall. Hinges, hasp, lock plate and three corner brackets. One tangential board and the rest radially cut. Thickness at least 22 mm. From the position of the hinges the container was probably long enough for the body.

Burial 2005 – Body extended but laying on side. Approximately 1.69 m tall. Hinge, lock and a corner bracket but hinge and lock on same side of body suggesting that the container had been put into the grave so that it lay on its back; this accords with the body being on its side. Radially formed planks about 33 mm thick. The distribution of nails suggests extensive repairs to the head end of the container. There were other less well preserved “chest burials”. Overall some conclusions can be reached.

  • Both hasps and corner brackets indicate right angle joints but with rounding of the edges.
  • Either sliding bolts or tumbler locks were used.
  • Board thickness was reduced to about 10 mm for the joints indicating the use of a rebated but joint.
  • Joints generally fastened with pegs / dowels. Where nails are used these are almost always through a peg / dowel indicating a repair.
  • Pegs / dowels were split from mature wood rather than round wood.
  • These containers were probably rectangular boxes.

Apart from the sites listed above burials of this type have also been found at Thwing, (East Ridding of Yorkshire), Hereford, Repton, Dacre and Winchester. Similar burials are also known from both Denmark and Fresia.


During the Anglo-Saxon period a small number of bodies were buried in wooden boxes which had hinges and either a lock or a hasp for a missing padlock. While it is difficult to be absolutely certain that these were chests rather than special coffins the evidence of wear on hinges and of repairs strongly suggests that they were chests. They were generally formed from radially prepared boards which seem to be of consistent thickness for each burial but which can vary between burials from 16 – 33 mm. As made they seem to have been fastened together with split timber dowels / pegs and to have use used basic joints such as rebated but joints or in at least one case a grove rebate to hold the base. In some cases angle brackets were used to hold the base to the sides but these brackets seem to be more generally used to strengthen the upper parts of the corners (the lower parts being held fairly rigid by the base). All three excavation reports conclude that we are dealing with rectangular boxes with right angle corners although the edges may have been rounded. The vertical components seem to have the wood grain in the horizontal plane. In at least one case the individual faces must have been made of more than one plank as they are only 8” wide.

Size is very difficult to judge but in most cases they appear to have been long enough for the body (5 – 6 feet) and wide enough to lay the body on its back - in essence a good large chest for holding bedding or clothing. Smaller chests of this type would also be useful for clothing but of limited value as a coffin. Since chest burials are known from Denmark similar chests may have been used there.

Credits: with thanks to Robert and Hannah Wilkinson, 2012.