The Quernmore Burial

Fell walker and historian Andrew Stachulski uncovers the intriguing story of a Bowland Dark Ages relic

All who are familiar with the Trough Road from Clitheroe to Lancaster will know of the superbly situated Jubilee Tower, about six miles south east of Lancaster, one of many such follies which celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of 1887.

The view from the top is inspiring, looking across Morecambe Bay to the Lake District across a wide sweep of the Bowland fells declining to the flat country of the Fylde to the south and south west. The adjacent car park is unsophisticated but serviceable, and it was here, while the ground was being cleared over 40 years ago, that one of Bowland’s most fascinating relics came to light – the so-called Quernmore burial remains and shroud. The remains were later transferred to the Lancaster City Museum by Lady Sefton, who owns the land where the discovery was made.

The remains were actually a wooden coffin of a remarkable form, namely a boat-shaped construct in two parts, one half having been damaged unwittingly by a mechanical digger. Apparently, it was the disturbing of the burial remains by the preparations for levelling the parking site which caused the wooden structure to be noticed by a local man while walking his dog. Fortunately, it was possible to restore the whole almost completely, and radiocarbon dating of the wood, accurate to about 100 years, gave the relic a date of 600-700 AD, very much in the heart of the Dark Ages. The shroud itself had been remarkably well preserved, but interestingly it had been cut into two portions at some point before the burial. It is suggested that the shroud, which is five feet in length, was not long enough to enclose the whole body and a section had been cut off to wrap the feet.

Nothing of the skeleton remained owing to centuries of erosion by the peaty local soil, but keratin rich body material from the nails and hair, was still present and, remarkably, they are more robust than bone under such conditions. The boat-like coffin structure, in two almost equal parts, is not unique. Similar artefacts have been found elsewhere in northern England at Featherstone and Haltwhistle. The significance of the boat structure is also unclear – some ritualistic significance, perhaps, recalling the ark? Or was it simply a convenient shape for construction reflecting the carpentry of the period? Naturally the identity and status of the buried person remains unknown. He must have been of some standing, granted that so few burials of any kind have been preserved from that era. All the evidence suggests the body was transported to this point, yet there is no cairn or barrow of the sort associated with many older, prehistoric burial sites. It is truly one of its own.

In truth, then, the Quernmore burial presents more questions than answers about one of the least understood periods of British history. A friend of mine asked whether any DNA investigation had been carried out, and indeed if samples of sufficient quality could be salvaged, they might yield a most interesting result. Above all, why this spot? Perhaps there was an early settlement here or hereabouts? As you stand at this airy, open spot and contemplate the mystery, there is plenty of scope for imagination. Let’s hope that further investigations, perhaps local, will reveal more about this twilight period of our history. Do visit the museum and view the remains for yourself, but just as memorable, and mysterious, is the airy, windswept location of this haunting spot with its superb views.

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