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Friday, 18 April 2014

A6 road engineer unearths a lavish Viking burial chamber

In 1751 a turnpike trust was formed for a road from Penrith to Carlisle. Today this is the A6 and it follows the line of the turnpike, except where improvements have been made.

It is fortunate that when one such modification was planned between High and Low Hesket in 1822, Christopher Hodgson, a turnpike surveyor, was on hand and kept a record of the discoveries.

He explained that a cairn “of a very large heap of stones” had been in the way “when the turnpike road was made” and “the road had been curved round the west side of the cairn to avoid injuring it.”

It was Christopher Hodgson’s job to remove this anomaly and straighten the road.

All the detail was contained in a letter he sent to his antiquary brother, the Rev John Hodgson and printed 10 years later in the transactions of the Society of Antiquaries in Newcastle, of which John was joint secretary.

Christopher wrote that he was “widening Hesket Lane on the great road between Carlisle and Penrith, about 70 yards from the Court Thorn and on the east side of way fell in with a cairn.”

The obstruction was no longer evident, but in conversation with Mr Atkinson of Cross Gaps, “the nearest dwelling house to the cairn”, Hodgson found what had happened to it.

Atkinson remembered that the stones were taken for forming the road, and since then, successive farmers had taken stones in such quantities for repairing their hedges, as to reduce it so far below the level of the adjoining ground.

On Monday, February 18, 1822, Hodgson was preparing to put in the new hedge and set several of his workmen to clear its area when they found “a very large quantity of cobble stones ... 22 feet diameter and about two feet below the surface ... some so large as to take three men to roll them out.”

Below this was a Viking burial, today described as the Hesket hoard.

There was all manner of metalwork – spurs, an axehead, spearheads, knife, sickle, horse trappings, shield boss and sword. There were whetstones for sharpening blades and pieces of worked bone, one forming a comb.

Burnt bones were originally thought to be a cremated body but are now thought to have come from an animal as a sacrificial food offering.

All the contents were probably what a Viking warrior would need in his afterlife.

The remains were fully described by Hodgson in his letter and his brother had engraved a picture to include in his article along with a drawing of the exact location of the find.

This had been possible because Christopher Hodgson had kept the antiquities in his possession.

At the time of discovery the Carlisle Journal reported on the unusual finds and the fact that they were of rusted iron. The Citizen in March 1822 also mentioned the growing collecting of “antiquities in the possession of C Hodgson, road surveyor.”

The Journal recorded the death of “Christopher Hodgson, architect, on February 25, 1849 at Eden Terrace, Stanwix, aged 64.” He was buried at St Cuthbert’s Church and the gravestone gave his birth date at July 24, 1784.

His collection was thought to be lost but it is known that Christopher’s widow kept what had been his, because when the Archaeological Museum was formed at Carlisle in July 1859, on exhibition in the Fratry were the “antiquities found in a cairn near Hesket-in-the-Forest on the road from Carlisle to Penrith in 1822, lent by Mrs Hodgson, Stanwix.”

In November 1871 Catherine Hodgson died at the family home, Rose House on London Road, leaving her only surviving daughter, also Catherine, to clear out her father’s collection.

This had been done by April 1878, because when Carlisle Museum reopened after refurbishment there was a new exhibit “comprising a number of articles found in a tumulus, supposed to be Anglo-Saxon or Danish, opened at Hesket-in-the-Forest,” according to the Journal.

A familiar description was given of the objects, but not mentioned before were beads and earthenware rings.

If there was any doubt of their origin the newspaper explained these as a recent addition, “the collection made by the late Christopher Hodgson which recently came into the possession of Mr Ferguson MP and now lent by that gentleman.”

It seems that Robert Ferguson gave his collection to Tullie House on its transfer from Finkle Street in 1893, because some of the items from the Hesket hoard now form an important part of the Viking display there.

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