Moving the Pollington Sarcophagus
Discovered in 1949 by quarry workers, this enigmatic burial of a woman has featured prominently in Doncaster Museum over the years. Our Human History curator, Peter Robinson, uncovers what went into the complex operation to move it to its new home in the Danum Gallery, Library and Museum due to open later this summer.
The sarcophagus featured in Doncaster’s first Museum and Art Gallery which opened in the re-purposed 19th Century town villa known as Beechfield House. This once stood where Doncaster Council’s Civic Building now resides. It spent a short time there before being moved to a new purpose built Museum and Art Gallery, opened in 1964 part way down Chequer Road.
How are large heavy objects moved into position?
It is rare that the general public get to glimpse the work that goes on behind the scenes of creating a new building, let alone a new museum gallery and display. All too often curators, display designers and technicians just get the job done and forget that people are often just as fascinated in what goes into making a display, as they are in the display itself. Documenting and sharing the process of moving the Pollington Sarcophagus provides a snapshot of what happens behind the scenes in a museum.
The Pollington Sarcophagus is the largest, heaviest, and in many ways also the most delicate, object in the new Danum Museum. In fact, it is so big and so heavy that the gallery had to be planned specifically to accommodate it. This involved modifying the structure to make it possible to be placed on the first floor.
At nearly 2 tonnes it is made from two pieces of solid sandstone, quarried somewhere in North Yorkshire, which form the sarcophagus and the lid. It was a feat of engineering at the time it was quarried, made, and transported all the way to Pollington, and still required a feat of engineering to move and safely display it approximately 1,700 years after it was buried in the ground.
The new Danum Gallery, Library and Museum is a state of the art building, designed using the most current structural engineering techniques and materials and, as such, the first and second floors are a floating steel construction. This meant that special strengthening plates had to be put in along the route the Sarcophagus would travel through into the gallery, from a purpose built goods lift (designed for us to be able to move large and heavy objects between floors and the gallery and museum spaces), to its final resting place. The location of the sarcophagus also had to have the floor specially designed and strengthened to accommodate its weight.
In order to move the sarcophagus and its lid from the old museum to the new Danum Gallery, a considerable amount of work had to be done. The first part of this involved carefully deconstructing the display around the sarcophagus in the By River and Road Gallery and then carefully removing the suspended wooden framed glass lid which covered the sarcophagus. This glass lid allowed visitors to look inside, but protected it from dust, dirt, and anyone who might try to touch the very fragile contents inside.
Once this was complete, we carefully checked the skeleton and other remains in the sarcophagus (such as the gypsum plaster casing) and removed and packed any loose parts such as the skull, lower jaw bone, and one or two of the other loose bones like the left ulna (one of the lower arm bones).
Photographs were then taken before the remaining, very fragile contents of the sarcophagus had to be packed around to ensure that they could not move and that they were protected from any sudden shock during the process.
The contents of the sarcophagus are the most fragile. Despite the female burial having been placed in a massive stone sarcophagus and encased in gypsum, she had lain undisturbed in the ground for nearly 1,700 years. In that time her body had decayed and soil and water entered the sarcophagus over time, causing the remains to decay further and become very brittle. This is because the seal made by the stone lid is not a perfect fit (and neither could it ever have been water or air tight), so the remains would have been damaged by seasonal heavy rain, snow, and even ground penetrating frosts.
Before packing the coffin out to support the contents we discussed options on how to do this with our freelance conservator Graham Key. The agreed method was to fill polythene finds bags with acid free tissue bundles, which could be compressed and shaped (by letting out air and compressing the malleable tissue bundles) to fit around and in between the contents. This would support them and prevent any movement or damage from shock.
By placing the tissue bundles into polythene bags this also prevented the tissue from snagging on any of the fragile protruding bone or gypsum plaster and made it much quicker to pack and unpack safely. Once the spaces around the skeleton and the remaining gypsum casing were packed, sheets of corrugated foam were layered over the top, with more large polythene bags of tissue bundles in between, like a lasagne, until the sarcophagus was full.
At this point the sarcophagus was now ready to be moved. Due to the weight and size of the object, we worked with a specialist museum movers company called Harrow Green, who are based not too far away in Leeds. After they’d made a visit to assess everything, checking the space they had to work in and the route it had to take through the museum and over to the new one, they explained how they were going to pack, lift, and move it.
The plan was to lift it using two A-frames with a bar suspended between it, chains and pulleys with straps, and padding to protect the sarcophagus where the chains would touch it. Despite the equipment being made from modern materials and the workers wearing modern clothes, the method of lifting and moving this huge, heavy carved sandstone sarcophagus hadn’t changed since the day it was made. If you take a minute to think about this, it really is a remarkable testament to ancient engineering that we are still using the same techniques in the 21st Century.
Using the A-frames, chains and pulleys, the sarcophagus was carefully lifted onto a purpose made trolley. In essence, this would have been no different to the cart which would have transported it on part of its journey from a North Yorkshire quarry to a cemetery in Pollington in the 4th Century A.D. Laid across the trolley were layers of padding and a film which could be wrapped and sealed around it to make it air tight and water tight for its short journey out of the Chequer Road Museum and over to Danum Gallery, Library and Museum.
Once it was packed up and protected on its trolley, the sarcophagus was loaded into the back of a truck with a hydraulic lifting platform and strapped in to prevent it moving for the short 150-200 yard drive between the old Museum and the new one. In the 4th Century it is likely that the long part of its journey from the quarry to Pollington would have been by ship, down the Ouse and then the Aire, which would take it within a short horse and cart ride of Pollington. Until the modern industrial era, the rivers were the equivalent of modern day motorways and offered the fastest way to move goods around.
Fortunately the day we moved the sarcophagus it was a warm, dry and bright June day. The sarcophagus was the first object to be moved into the new gallery space, several months before the Museum gallery was constructed. The reason for this was because it had to take a very specific route from the lift to its installation location, and it would have been very difficult to do this once the gallery began to be built. This meant that for months the sarcophagus sat, wrapped up in the new museum, while the displays around it were constructed.
During the gallery installation a frame was installed inside which the sarcophagus could sit and then be sealed in with a glass lid and side panels with viewing windows so that at least two sides (a long side and the end) could be viewed. The lid had a special mounting system made to hold it up above the sarcophagus.
Once the frame had been installed it was time to bring Harrow Green back to unwrap and winch the sarcophagus up, over, and into the specially built frame, and to set the lid in its mounts.
Once it was in place we had to carefully remove the packing from inside the sarcophagus and make sure the condition of the remains had not been affected by the move. We methodically checked them against the photographs that had been taken before it was packed and moved, to ensure no damage had occurred.
Finally, all that was left to do was to unpack and put back in place the skull, lower jaw and arm bone which had been removed prior to packing. Before the glass lid and sides were fitted and the sarcophagus was sealed inside its new display case, we gave the inside and the contents a careful clean to remove dirt and dust which may have entered the sarcophagus decades earlier when it was first installed in the museum on Chequer Road.
It was cleaned using a conservation hoover – this has a dial that can adjust the speed and suction strength. In addition to this, a fine gauze was placed over the nozzle of the hoover pipe to catch any pieces of bone or other items which may be of archaeological importance. This was then emptied into a finds bag and labelled with the details and accession number of the sarcophagus, so that it can be examined later.
So why has so much time and effort gone in to moving just one item?
Well, the answer is two-fold. Firstly, as a museum, it is our responsibility to care for historic collections so that they survive for generations of residents of, and visitor to, Doncaster to learn from and enjoy. Secondly, and specifically in the case of this object, we are dealing with someone’s human remains. Although this person lived over 1,700 years ago and has no living relatives, her remains still deserve to be treated with reverence and respect. In turn, her remains are there to teach us about our shared past and also our shared mortality.
If you want a sneak preview of the sarcophagus, you can spot it in the virtual preview of the new Danum Gallery, Library and Museum, where it features in the Museum on the first floor.
The new display will develop over time to reveal new and exciting discoveries and information about this Star Object. So when we can finally open to the public, come and visit us and see our Roman female in her new home.