Gristhorpe Man : (c. 2200 BC)

Gristhorpe man skeleton


In July 1834, landowner William Beswick and a group of friends dug into the central and most prominent of a group of three barrows on the cliffs at Gristhorpe near Scarborough, the site of which now lies within the Blue Dolphin Holiday Park. They discovered an intact log-coffin burial which contained a perfectly preserved skeleton, stained black from the oak tannins and buried with a range of grave goods that included a bronze dagger blade and whalebone pommel, a flint knife, and a range of organic grave goods that remains unparalleled in the British archaeological record. These included a bark basket or container and an animal skin within which the body had been wrapped. William Beswick donated this important assemblage of finds to the then newly-opened Scarborough Museum (now the Rotunda Museum) and they have remained on display there ever since.

Gristhorpe coffin and flint knife

The skeleton

Re-examination of the skeleton by staff at the University of Bradford has included a new assessment of his stature, age and health. This work has revealed that ‘Gristhorpe Man’ was around 1.82m (six feet) tall – one of the tallest individuals known from Bronze Age Britain. He was around 60 years old when he died and the skeleton has extensive evidence of degenerative change and ossification of cartilage. Pathology present included two healed rib fractures and dental disease, whilst Raman spectroscopy has revealed that what had been thought to be ‘mistletoe berries’ are actually kidney stones.

Additional information was obtained using X-ray photography and CT scans. The former provided evidence of trauma to the front of the mandible, whilst the latter identified a large cyst above the left maxillary molars and a benign intra-cranial tumour that could have resulted in a number of physical effects, including muscle weakness on the right hand side of the body. It could also have meant that ‘Gristhorpe Man’ would have been subject to seizures in his latter years.

Scanning the Gristhorpe skull

Isotopic analyses of the bones and teeth have produced important new information about the origins and lifestyle of the individual, indicating that he was likely to have originated from the Scarborough area and had a high animal protein diet, obtained from terrestrial rather than marine animals, throughout his life.

The development of forensic facial reconstruction techniques in recent times provided Dr. Alan Ogden of the Bradford Bioanthropology Centre (BARC) with the perfect opportunity to reconstruct how Gristhorpe Man may well have looked.

Gristhorpe Man facial reconstruction

The date of the burial

Radiocarbon dates were obtained for the skeleton, the coffin, and an oak branch that had been placed on top of the coffin. The dates from the skeleton indicate that Gristhorpe Man died between 2200 BC and 2020 BC and are consistent with those obtained form the coffin which indicate that the tree was felled between 2115 BC and 2035 BC. The oak branch, however, provided a later date of between 1750 BC and 1530 BC and had been introduced centuries after the original interment.

The coffin and grave goods

The waterlogged conditions in the grave meant that the log-coffin was in an excellent state when recovered in 1834. Only the lid now survives, but this has ensured the preservation of what the original excavators thought was ‘a rude figure of a human face’ carved into the lid at the foot of the coffin. This carving was ‘much damaged by the feet of the workmen’ and was inaccurately depicted in their 1834 illustration. Re-examination has revealed that the ‘face’ is surrounded by a cut which flares, possibly to indicate shoulders.

A range of scientific analyses have been carried out on the items found in the coffin. These include metallurgical and lead isotope analyses of the bronze dagger blade which indicate that Ireland was the ultimate source of the copper ore used, but that it had been recycled with other ores being introduced. The original 1834 illustration of the blade appears to depict a scabbard that is no longer present. Scanning electron microscopy detected traces of animal collagen on the blade, confirming the former presence of a scabbard. The pommel of the dagger was fashioned from whalebone. The flint knife provided evidence of it having been hafted and re-sharpened twice. Microwear analysis indicated that it had been used to work hides and cut meat.