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The Gristhorpe Man: A Bronze Age Skeleton

The Gristhorpe Man: A Bronze Age Skeleton with a Story to Tell

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On the July 10, 1834, William Beswick excavated a barrow on his land in Gristhorpe, North Yorkshire, England. What he found gave him quite the surprise. Beswick discovered a coffin in the shape of a scooped-out oak tree. Inside the coffin was something special - the skeleton of a Bronze Age man, known today as the Gristhorpe Man.

When Beswick made his discovery members of the Scarborough Philosophical Society, which consisted of doctors and other learned members of society, were also present . Seeing that the skeletal remains of the Gristhorpe Man were so fragile, they made an attempt to preserve them. Filling a laundry copper with horse glue, the bones were boiled for eight hours. Thanks to them, the skeleton is still complete today. Unfortunately the process they used to conserve the bones has rendered the study of DNA or the use of collagen from the body for dating purposes impossible.

The Gristhorpe Man, his coffin and his grave goods were donated to the Scarborough Philosophical Society, and displayed at the Rotunda Museum in Scarborough. A monograph of the discovery was written by William Crawford Williamson, the 17-year-old son of the museum’s first keeper, John Williamson. This piece of work included drawings of the skull and grave goods, as well as details regarding the method of preservation and the coffin dimensions.

Drawings of the Gristhorpe Man's Skull, J. and W.C. Williamson

Drawings of the Gristhorpe Man's Skull, J. and W.C. Williamson ( Scarborough Museum's Trust )

Modern  Insights into the Gristhorpe Man

Since then, many new and exciting discoveries have been made about the Gristhorpe Man. Perhaps one of the most obvious features of the Gristhorpe Man was his height. Measuring at a height of about 6 feet ( 1.8 meters), the Gristhorpe Man was extremely tall for the Bronze Age era. This could have been the result of a relatively good diet. This in turn allowed archaeologists to infer that the Gristhorpe Man was an individual of high social status, perhaps a tribal chief. Additional clues that indicate this status may be found in the grave goods. Before being placed inside the oak coffin, the body of the Gristhorpe Man was wrapped in a skin cloak, of which only fragments survive today. Other grave goods included a dagger, flint tools, a wicker basket containing food residue, and a bark vessel, which, according to modern research, contained milk.

It is the dagger that will help archaeologists date the Gristhorpe Man more precisely. This dagger was made of bronze, and had a polished whalebone pommel. Based on the composition of the metal, it has been suggested that the bulk of it came from south-western Ireland, whilst the tin originated in south-western England. In addition to shedding light on ancient trade routes in the British Isles, this knowledge may also allow comparison with other British examples where radiocarbon dates are available.

Modern science has also revealed that the Gristhorpe Man was likely to have been a warrior. This is due to the presence of numerous healed fractures. While we may never be able to know if the Gristhorpe Man’s personality matched that of a typical Bronze Age warrior, some Victorians believed that it was possible. Using the now debunked ‘science’ of phrenology, some claimed that a person’s personality may be determined by the shape of the skull. Based on the skull of the Gristhorpe Man, a certain Dr. Elliotson concluded that his characteristics included a high level of combativeness and destructiveness, as well as a low level of constructiveness and imitation.

Facial Reconstruction of the Gristhorpe Man

Facial Reconstruction of the Gristhorpe Man ( Scarborough Museum's Trust )

The Gristhorpe Man Speaks

Today, Dr. Elliotson’s phrenological assessment of the Gristhorpe Man would be questioned. However scientists have found a different use for the Gristhorpe Man’s skull. Using the results of a large number of tests and investigations, a facial reconstruction of the Gristhorpe Man has been created. Researchers have also gone one step further by using modern software techniques to animate the Gristhorpe Man’s facial reconstruction. As a result, visitors to the Rotunda Museum are able to not only see how the Gristhorpe Man may have looked like when he was alive, but also hear him speak - albeit in modern English rather than a form of Proto-Celtic language that he might have spoken.

Featured image: Scarborough Gristhorpe Man ( Roy/Flickr)

By Ḏḥwty

References

BBC, 2007. A 4000 year old VIP comes to Bradford!. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bradford/content/articles/2007/07/10/bradford_gristhorpe_man_feature.shtml

BBC, 2010. Gristhorpe Man speaks after 4,000 years. [Online]
Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/york/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8877000/8877132.stm

Bean, D., 2010. Scientists give Bronze Age Gristhorpe Man a face and voice. [Online]
Available at: http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/8310552.Scientists_give_face_and_voice_to_Bronze_Age_man/

Down, S., 2013. Holy cow: Milk residues in ancient bark vessel. [Online]
Available at: http://www.spectroscopynow.com/details/ezine/13d265e4500/Holy-cow-Milk-residues-in-ancient-bark-vessel.html?&tzcheck=1&tzcheck=1

Highfield, R. & Fleming, N., 2006. Gristhorpe Man 'was Bronze Age warrior chieftain'. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1528255/Gristhorpe-Man-was-Bronze-Age-warrior-chieftain.html

Rushton, J., 2015. Gristhorpe man - the reaction of Victorians. [Online]
Available at: http://www.scarboroughsmaritimeheritage.org.uk/agristhorpeman.php

TheScarborough, 2010. Gristhorpe Man slowly gives up his secrets. [Online]
Available at: http://www.thescarboroughnews.co.uk/news/local/gristhorpe-man-slowly-gives-up-his-secrets-1-1455100

Comments

What Proto-Celtic? Just asking how can you even know that...Anyway, аncient tribe of Dardanians, an Illiryan tribe from what is today South Serbia, used to bury their dead in tree trunks like that during bronze age. Some graves were found in South Serbia/Kosovo, and as I recall lectures of one professor of archaeology during my studies, who was pretty much against conventional (e.g. faked) archaeology, many of these tree coffins were literally destroyed by goverment researchers in 50s/60s, by throwing them in river after excavations. Why? There are answers...

Justbod's picture

Thank you for this article! Coincidentally, I came across his story only a couple of days ago whilst researching somthing else, so it was a pleasant surprise to see your post. It’s also encouraged me to add the Rotunda Museum to my list – can’t believe I’ve never been – visited Scarborough loads of times.

Great that they managed to preserve the bones in that time, but a shame it destroyed the DNA. Thanks again!

 

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