Hogging Time

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A hogback carving at Durham Cathedral. Picture by Chris Booth

As I’ve mentioned before, to kill time during the most recent lockdown I’ve been watching some dramas based on historical novels such as Poldark which is set in 18th century Cornwall, and another called Outlander, which is set in 18th century Scotland. Poldark has taught me about coastal living in a tin and copper mining area, and Outlander about the Jacobite rising and the Battle of Culloden. I’ve recently stepped back another thousand years and am now slightly obsessed with the series ‘Vikings’ and ‘The Last Kingdom’, the latter based on Bernard Cornwell’s ‘The Saxon Stories’ novels. 

Artistic licence has been used extensively in these fictional adaptations. For example, my children and I laughed when we saw on screen a distant ‘view’ of Eoforwic, which is the Anglo-Saxon word for York. The 10th century city was nestling among rolling green hills. Those who live on York’s glacial plain know that the nearest significant hill to the city is about 15 miles away! The Vikings had trouble pronouncing Eoforwic, which is believed to mean ‘wild boar settlement’, so they changed it to the much easier-to-pronounce Jorvik, meaning ‘wild boar creek.’

Apart from some welcome escapism, the benefit of watching these shows is that it inspires me to read up on the real history behind them. I now know far more about the historical context that led up to the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and more about how the country of my birth was divided when the Vikings landed on our shores. 

This week, when I looked in the folder that contains my dad’s columns from 1981, I came across a clipping from the Letters Page from 28th March. A couple of readers had responded to a column he had written the week earlier in which he mentioned Viking ‘hogback coffins’ found at St Thomas’ Church, Brompton, near Northallerton. Similar examples had also been found in other places, such as Sockburn and Osmotherley, both not far from Brompton, while most of the rest were found elsewhere in the North and Scotland.

They were writing to tell him more about these fascinating things, but also to correct him. These stones, they said, were not coffins, but likely to have been grave markers. Ten of them were discovered at Brompton in 1867-8 when the church was being restored and are incredibly well preserved. Five remain there, but the rest have been moved to Durham Cathedral.

These sandstone blocks are around two feet high and three and a half feet long, have a curved top, and bow out slightly to the sides. They are carved with very distinctive patterns often seen in pagan art and were probably placed along the top of the grave. Many of these hogback stones have a lattice-type decoration running along the sides, believed to represent the tiles on the roof of a longhouse, a hall which lay at the centre of every Viking community and was home to the most important resident, the Earl.

Some theories suggest that the ‘hogback’ name derived from the carved pigs’ heads that often sit at either end of the stones. However, I’m not convinced, as those at Brompton are definitely not hogs, but muzzled bears complete with claws and fur.

One of the readers who contacted the paper said that the first ones to be discovered were found in the Lake District in the 1830s, and were so weathered that they thought the whole design was meant to represent a hog, which is how they got their name. However, if you stand back and look at the stones, their shape is very reminiscent of a curvature of the spine and the rounded belly of a pig or its wild cousin, the boar. So that’s my theory on the origin of the name, and I’m sticking to it.

The second reader mentions excavations at Coppergate in York where plans for Viking houses had been uncovered, showing the same overlapping roof tile design that was carved on the stones, confirming that they represented ‘houses of the dead’. Vikings believed that if you died a noble death, you would be rewarded with a glorious afterlife in the great hall of the gods, Valhalla.

If you want to see what they look like, then when you can, do visit the Jorvik Viking Centre which has stood on the exact spot of that discovery since 1984. 

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd April and the Gazette & Herald on 31st March 2021

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