“baby’s stone coffin” at Whitby?

November 15, 2011 at 4:51 am (Uncategorized)

Jonathan Jarrett has another “for those who couldn’t make it” conference report, which I always love reading even though most of the time I don’t have any idea what he’s talking about (Catalonian charters and Pictish archaeology… out of my depth there). There are some lovely photos of a trip to Whitby, one of which prompts this post.

Apparently a stone, er, thing  is on display at the nearby Church of St. Mary with a sign next to it saying “Saxon Baby’s Coffin.”  To which I can only say “what?”  I am no archaeologist, and it’s been a while since I’ve researched death, interment, etc, but a stone “Saxon Baby’s Coffin” strikes me as an improbable thing. I am going to find out what I can (since I would rather chase down obscure interesting bits of possibly-misidentified material culture than put these references into Chicago style), but if anybody wandering by knows about stone Saxon baby coffins, or (more likely) about this non-Saxon-non-baby-coffin artefact at Whitby, please do tell.  I presume they call it a coffin and not a sarcophagus for a reason, [*] and I presume there is some reason other than whimsy for its being identified as a “Saxon baby coffin,” but as of yet I don’t know a thing.

ETA: I’ve found a photo from a photographer’s trip to the abbey and church – scroll down (and ignore the caption asking about your “knowledge of Old English words” under a photo of some perfectly modern English).   And in Googling about, I’ve discovered another  thing on-site also frequently referred to as a stone coffin, which you can see here.  I bet it’s actually some sort of watering-trough.

ETA2: Nothing at the Whitby Abbey Headland Project page, last updated in 1999 (except for the mention that the 18 graves excavated as part of the project contained bodies probably wrapped in shrouds and placed directly in the earth – as usual – rather than inhumed in coffins, never mind stone coffins, if such a thing as a Saxon-era stone coffin even existed.

ETA3: They did eventually find evidence of a scant handful of wooden coffins at the Whitby cemetery.

ETA4: The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture in England: Northern Yorkshire does mention the excavation of a “portion of a Saxon headstone” at Whitby, which is in itself quite rare as mortuary practice, I think, so it may be that there are other unusual or uncommon features of interments here.  However, the same volume also records the excavation of a “portion of a Saxon stone used as a mould,” among various other bits which, broken up, might resemble other things to some people – like a baby-sized stone coffin 🙂  [see pp 232-33 and thereabouts]

ETA5: Ok, maybe I have to allow that there may have been such things as AS-era stone coffins after all, much to my surprise: the above volume led me to the description of the following, from the work of Seaton (NZ785178):

1. Coffin. Present Location: Lost?  Evidence for discovery: Three stone coffins together with human remains were found prior to 1860 and the location was marked on the Ordnance Survey 6-inch map, 400  m to the east of Seaton Hall. . . . One of the coffins, decorated with interlace, was noted in 1874 ‘doing duty as a water-trough on the slope of the hill to the left of the approach to a farm house . . . ”  [. . . ]  “Discussion: Coffins hollowed from a single stone, as this appears to have been, are uncommon monuments in the pre-Conquest period, but a decorated stone sarcophagus of this type is known from St. Alkmund’s church, Derby, which Radford dated to the ninth century.”

SO… maybe I was wrong to be so incredulous about Saxon stone coffins (except note use of “sarcophagus” in same paragraph, which might be part of the problem. [**] But I remain unconvinced concerning Baby-Saxon-Stone-Coffin.

ETA6: Ooh, I found a creative commons image of the St. Alkmund’s Sarcophagus, so I can have a picture in this post after all. But please note the obvious sarcophagus-ness of this sarcophagus – I insist that this is not a coffin.

St. Alkmund's Sarcophagus


And now I really must give up this wild goose chase and get back to the dissertation which has absolutely nothing to do with any of this (which is probably why this was so alluring in the first place…)


[*] I’m allowing for interment in stone, or within stone structures, in the case of burial beneath church floors, within sarcophagi inside churches (I would assume mostly for high-ranking clergy and the wealthy), and in crypts (I would assume mostly not in Anglo-Saxon-era English churches).  It’s the Saxonness of a stone coffin, and the abbey-ness of its original location, and the baby-ness of its supposed inhabitant/recipient given its Saxonness and abbey-ness, that I’m having a problem with.  (St. Cuthbert didn’t even get a stone coffin!)  There are some extant wills outlining donations to the monastery associated with the deceased’s burial in the ambulatory or other parts of the monastery, but these date from the 15th century.[1]  Were infants buried in stone coffins at abbeys prior to 867?  Was anyone?  Is this infant supposed to be a member of a Northumbrian royal family?  Did they find this thing in/under the site of the original abbey itself or in the surrounding cemetery or what?  Basically, who says it’s a Saxon baby coffin?

[**] I suspect there may be difficulties with terminology here – to my thinking, if it is a structure meant to stand above ground or be built into or form a part of the architecture of a church or other building, it’s a sarcophagus – maybe a tomb – but not a coffin.  Maybe I have the wrong operative definition of a coffin, in thinking of it as a container for a body which is inhumed completely? (Still… I’m not buying a Saxon baby sarcophagus either.)

Here, for instance, is where William II (Rufus) supposedly lies, in Winchester Cathedral; scroll down just past the tomb of Matilda Queen of Flanders, awash in a pretty pink glow in the photograph.

Not a coffin!  Also neither Saxon nor Anglo-Saxon.  (And actually probably not containing William II, for that matter.) But maybe someone would call that a coffin.  Would they?

The Wirksworth Stone is sometimes called a coffin-lid, but I would not call the resting place from which it was taken a coffin at all, not least of all because this magnificent carving was clearly not meant to be buried, but to be seen.  Indoors.  Above ground.  And so St. Betti (or whoever this was beneath it) was placed inside a vault, not a grave. (Even assuming the stone vault uncovered in the 19th century in St. Mary’s  was original and contemporaneous with the stone, which I don’t know very much about and don’t know to be true.)  ……Wow, I desperately miss England.


[1] George Young, A History of Whitby and Streoneshalh Abbey, vol. 1 (Whitby: Clark and Medd, 1817): 352-353.



  1. Jonathan Jarrett said,

    My goodness, see what happens when I open a research burrow in front of you by accident! In answer to one or two of your questions (I’ve answered others at your comment on my post), I’m not sure who ‘says’ it’s what the sign says; it was recovered, if I remember correctly, during the digs on the abbey site of the 1920s that futzed up all the stratography irreparably, and the Saxon assumption is, I assume myself, coming from their certainty that what they were digging was the Saxon site. Wanting more than this, I have been to look up Cramp’s sections on Whitby in Wilson, which reports the same items as are in the Corpus and also three ‘grave covers’ (two smashed and in the workshop zone for some reason), but nothing that answers this description unless, as you suspicion, it’s the `stone used as a mould’. So, since everything Cramp was recording came from the original quasi-report, I have now been to look that up too (Sir Charles Peers & C. A. Ralegh Radford, “The Saxon Monastery at Whitby” in Archaeologia Vol. 89 (London 1943), pp. 29-88). You may be pleased to know that of the larger coffin about which you are doubtful they say:

    The site of the Anglian cemetery is unknown, but among
    the remains of the early buildings is one stone-lined pit with tapering sides
    (pi. XVIII, b), set east and west, and quite different from the medieval graves, which looks as if intended for a burial. Its isolated position—nothing else like it having been found on the site—throws some doubt on its real character.

    As Cramp observes, that they said the site of the cemetery was unknown is peculiar given that they got a fair few graves; these seem to have been under and beyond the north wall of the abbey church as it now stands, and out of that area came many cross fragments and several inscribed stones, including the one I pictured in my post, bearing what appear to be the obituaries of abbesses. But there are no infant burials mentioned, or shown on the plan, and no mention of this object. So I’m inclined to call `unprovenanced’ on it and agree with you that it’s very unlikely to be Saxon at all. I still think it’s probably an infant coffin though, just I think it’s probably Roman or much later medieval. If the latter it might, just, still be from the site, but if the former there seems little chance of that.

    Sorry for the academic prose there, I wanted precision. Thankyou also for the attention to the post!

  2. Karma said,

    Those research burrows can be very dangerous for my productivity timelines 🙂

    Thanks for “playing” and sharing what you found (your afternoon spent on this was my late-night insomnia spent on this, so I was limited to what I could get electronically on the public net or via university proxy servers for journal subscriptions). I too am surprised that so much remains to be done on-site and thus so much remains unknown – and I regret the “futzing up” of the archaeological record which means some things may remain mysteries.

    I will defer to you on its coffin-ness (i was not convinced from the photo, but I did not see it in person), and agree that it’s likely earlier or later – I think I did read that the site sits atop an earlier Roman site – one of the glass game pieces recovered from a grave in the cemetery excavations was later found to be Roman, I think, and there are certainly Roman sites nearby. This is all really interesting, and if I ever get caught up with current projects (does that ever really happen?!) I want to look into it some more.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett said,

    Let us not speak of productivity timelines, I am not winning at mine right now. Archaeologia is online through Cambridge Journals Online so you may be able to get it, should you look into this further. Thankyou for the diversion!

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