A reconstruction of the Viking age coffin chest from Lejre cemetery

The village of Lejre, west of Roskilde, began to excite historical interest at the end of the 18th Century due to its legendary association with the Skjoldung dynasty. Between 1944 and 1968 excavations were carried out by Harald Andersen, focusing on a ridge east of ancient Lejre village with a couple of large grave mounds and the remains of two stone ship settings (fig 1.). A Viking period cemetery was found around the ship settings.

Fig 1. An aerial photograph of the large ship setting seen from the west.

The Grave
In one of the graves, numbered 1160, a chest was reused as the coffin with one end broken up so the body could be placed in it. Only the iron fittings remain but from these and their location in the grave it has been possible to reliably reconstruct the chest.
The burial was an inhumation orientated E.N.E /W.S.W with the head to the west, and was buried at the edge of a large, irregularly filled ditch. The coffin's east end was broken up to make room for the corpse’s feet. The skeleton belonged to a woman aged between 35 and 55 years old. Outside the broken end of the chest was a bucket handle of iron with curled up ends. The bucket was probably wood though no material remains. Judging by the handle the bucket's diameter would have been 17cm. (A picture of the handle.) In the middle section of the chest was an iron knife 11cm long.

Fig 2. The grave plan.

The Original Chest
The coffin could be reconstructed with great accuracy due to the preserved bands and observations made during the excavation. On the rear the coffin had four vertical bracket hinges that linked to four bands running over the lid. There were four vertical brackets at the front, the middle two being shorter to accommodate the large lock plate. Around each end were two horizontal brackets.

Fig 3. Grave 1160 during the excavation. The left seen from the west and right seen from the east. In the foreground of the right can be seen the disturbed end of the coffin and the bucket handle.

The coffin length is calculated to be 1.47m which is the distance between the two end fittings. The width of 37cm is given by the preserved western end bracket. The height is estimated at 28cm which is the total length of the rear hinge brackets, and excludes the lid. The coffin may have been higher if it had legs, but then it would expected the hardware components would be in a much more irregular positioning due to subsidence.

Fig 4.Mounts from the west end of the coffin.

The top hinge brackets are fairly fragmented and it cannot be determined if the lid was flat or arched. The pictorial reconstruction has a flat lid but this is not intended to emphasise this over an arched lid.

Fig 5. Diagrammatic reconstruction of the coffin.

The thickness of the coffin wood can be calculated from the cleated nails at approximately 2cm for the sides and 3cm for the lid.

Fig 6. Coffin hinge mount.

The lock
The Lock on the front board consists of a large rectangular plate 55cm x 8cm with three holes, a sliding bolt, two wings for springs and two eyelets.

Fig 7. Parts of the lock of the coffin.

The lock's sliding bolt was found sitting behind the lockplate with one end sticking out through the right hole. The exact location of the other parts cannot be determined due to the subsidence of the lid. The two loose wings must have been springs and pressed against the bolt, which had two tabs on the front edge to prevent the bolt moving without a key. Two hasps were fixed to the lid each with an eye matching the two side holes in the lock plate.
A possible key shape is shown in the lock diagram. Here an anchor shaped key goes through the centre of the bolt and is rotated a ¼ turn to engage the key with the sliding bolt and unlock the chest.

Fig 8.Sketch diagram reconstructing the lock mechanism. (according to Andersen 1969.)

It is uncertain why the bolt was bent so the end stuck out of the chest, it is unlikely to have been an attempt at breaking in and may have been bent to retain usage due to wear and tear, or something like a lost key. But I had trouble understanding this part of the translated report.
The above text is a poor translation and paraphrasing of the original text. If you speak Danish scans of the original are here, page 1 page 2. Let me know if I have made any glaring errors in translation.

The Reconstruction
With need for a chest to store our kitchen gear Europa decided to make a large chest based on the Lejre coffin chest from grave 1160 in Denmark. As we needed to get the chest finished for an event and had the enthusiasm we got to work before several reference sources had arrived, so we made a few accuracy mistakes in the construction but overall the chest is very similar to the original.
We first became aware of the chest from a grainy image on the internet, and scaled it up. This caused its own problems as the pixelation distorted how several parts looked, such as the hasps, which required a bit of conjecture due to their deterioration. After a bit of looking it turned out the image is from The Encyclopaedia of the Viking age by John Haywood.

Fig 9. Here is a better scan of the image(Haywood 2000).

The Body
We decided to make the chest to the original size and duplicate the ironwork as accurately as possible; this poses a few problems as the original is huge, so we had to join narrower lengths of timber to the required width. The finished chest only just fits in our trailer. We also have to empty it to carry it but that's just as much to do with the iron cookware as the chest.
The body of the chest was made as a simple six sided box without legs in the same probable manner as the original. As the woodwork did not survive this is conjectural. The pictorial reconstruction obviously does not show the timber joinery. Assuming a six sided rectangular prism construction we chose what we thought would give the strongest result, with the ends the full width of the chest on top of the base and keeping in the sides. Though Haywoods picture shows it put together differently.
We also decided to reconstruct the lid as flat. Looking at Fig 6., the top part of the hinge is straight and I think this part or some of the other lid hinge parts would show up an arched lid, despite their fragmentary nature. It may have been from looking at the pictorial reconstructions but this also seemed more in keeping with the style of the chest though both flat and arched lids are well referenced in other Viking period chests.

Fig 10. The chest under construction. Testing the lid.

The Ironwork
We reconstructed the iron bands as continuing under the chest. Which seems logical and also makes for a far stronger chest but is not mentioned in the description, and is unlikely to be how the original was done. Neither the large iron banded chest from Oseberg or the chest from Birka grave 639 appear to have had banding around the base. All the banding is the same width and in the original positions including the horizontal end bands being placed at slightly different heights (which can be seen in fig 10.). All the nails are in the same positions as on the original chest and are cleated over on the inside.
The top hinges have a tongue that goes through the loop on the back into the wood (fig 6.) and the front is folded over the lid edge. The hinges have hammer marks where we tried to roughen up the strap steel we used, but we stopped this as it didn't really give the appearance of hand forged bands anyway.

Fig 11. The back of the chest, showing the hinges.

The Lock
We didn’t yet have the detailed drawing of the lock when it was constructed, so while it looks the same from the outside there are some construction details different from the original. Being easily visible the lockplate is the same and almost exactly original size, but the sliding bolt and lock springs are different. Ours is based on a lock from Jorvik, they use the same mechanism principle but use a different style key. The hasps we made largely follow Haywood's picture reconstruction with a tapering top bracket and a hasp with curled up ends.

Fig 12. The lock plate from the front.

Fig 13. The inside workings of the lock.

Though no key was found in the burial, the original must have been different to our key as ours was made to fit the mechanism we constructed with a different style bolt. The key we made is based on one found in the mastermyr chest. Though we are working on one to suit the chest that was found in the Lejre cemetery in grave 287.

The key found in Lejre grave 287 and Image of The keys from the mastermyr find.

Problems with the Reconstruction
Our reconstruction does have a few historical shortcomings. Much of the work was done without reliable information from the original dig. Several design elements were taken from very small pictures on the internet and the original elements have proven to be slightly different with better references. The leaf shape of the hasps probably isn't representative of the originals, and although it is an accurate lock mechanism the lock isn’t quite right as the bolt and key are different to the Lejre chest examples. As the original wood didn't survive we used radiata pine and joined planks to the correct width. Though it cannot be verified, given the amount of ironwork and the evidence from other surviving Viking chests I would suggest oak is likely to been used for the originals timber. Our measurements are also slightly off the original here and there and the lid is the same thickness as the body.

Fig 14. The chest reconstruction from the front, showing the lock plate and iron banding.

Fig 15. The chest from the back, with the key sitting on top.

Fig 16. The finished chest in use.

We originally came across the chest on Sven Skildbiter's catalogue of extant chests and casket site with a very grainy image online here. He sells a smaller basic version of the chest from grave 1160 and one based on the smaller casket found in grave 321.

Analogous finds of banding on chests is represented in a few other Viking examples. Birka 639 had a very similar construction to the 1160 chest. It being a rectangular prism box with vertical bands on the sides and horizontal bands on the ends. Oseberg 149 also gives us evidence of iron banding and it is a much more secure chest, with much wider bands and hundreds of nails. A reconstruction for the new Oseberg ship used approximately 1900 nails.

The Iron banded chest from the Oseberg ship burial.

In total 11 graves had traces of coffins in the Lejre cemetery, though only one was a reused chest, one was a hollowed out log (grave A) and the rest must have been boxes of plank construction(graves 143, 345, 828, 927, 944, 1001, 1028, 1051 and 1061).

"The artefacts" from P 85 of Aarbørger for Nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie.
Below is a translation and paraphrasing of another part of the text with a more detailed study of individual artefacts here is a scan of the original page in Danish.

The translation is:
"In grave 1160 was found the remains of an iron banded box reused as a coffin. The bands were so well preserved that it is possible to reconstruct the chest with reasonable certainty. Iron banded coffins are found from time to time in Viking graves however they are often highly fragmentary and only a few have been reconstructed. It is difficult to get an overview of the period coffin material. The best preserved of the period boxes were found at Oseberg. One of these has iron bands but is of a different design to the Lejre chest as it has angled ends and sides. The Oseberg chest is also equipped with legs, which the Lejre example can hardly have had. The closest parallel to the Lejre example is not a coffin but a casket from a 9th century grave in the Birka burials. Apart from the size, there are many similarities between the two pieces. In both cases there is a box shaped container with rectangular lock plate, vertical iron bands on the sides and horizontal bands on the ends."

The Bibliography
I don’t have the texts but the original information on the dig is written up by Harald Andersen in
- A Vikinger Fra Uvant Sknsvinkel. Skalk 1969:1
- Lejre Lasen. Skalk 1969:3

A basic pictorial reconstruction of the Lejre chest.
- Encyclopaedia of the Viking age. John Haywood 2000 p.121

A decent write up on the grave with pictures and diagrams can be found in
- Aarbøger for Nordisk Oldkyndighed of Historie 1993 published by det Kongelige Nordisk Oldskriftselskab

The fittings of the chest from Birka grave 639 with a reconstructed box on the Swedish Historiska.se website.
- http://mis.historiska.se/mis/sok/include_image_exp.asp?uid=349804

A reconstruction of the Birka grave 639 chest by National Historical Museum.
- http://www.flickr.com/photos/historiska/6875736509/in/photostream

Details of the large Oseberg chest 149 are found in,
- Osebergfunnet Vol II 1928 Brøgger, Falk and Shetelig p.121

The banded chest from the Oseberg ship burial, numbered 149.
- a photo of the chest in the university museum photoportal
- another photo of the chest in the university museum photoportal

The webpage of the Nye Oseberg Skip showing the reconstructed Oseberg 149.
- Building a full scale replica of the Oseberg Ship
- More Photos

A website on historical locks.
- Viking Chests and boxes

Copyright Europa Reenactment Inc.2013. Page by L Brodrick. Images used without permission.