The Bronze Age Skeleton with a Tale: The Gristhorpe Man’s Narrative

September 28, 2023

On July 10, 1834, William Beswick excavated a pit on his land in Gristhorpe, North Yorkshire, England. What he found left him quite astonished. Beswick unearthed a coffin shaped like a felled oak tree. Inside the coffin lay something extraordinary – the skeleton of a Bronze Age man, now referred to as the Gristhorpe Man.

When Beswick carried out his exploration, members of the Scarborough Philosophical Society, including doctors and other esteemed members of the society, were also present. Upon observing that the skeletal remains of the Gristhorpe Man were quite fragile, they endeavored to preserve them. Filling the bones with horse glue, the bones were boiled for eight hours. Thanks to their efforts, the skeletal remains remain intact to this day. Unfortunately, the preservation process they used rendered DNA analysis or the use of collagen from the body for age determination impossible.

The Gristhorpe Man, his coffin, and his burial paraphernalia were gifted to the Scarborough Philosophical Society and displayed at the Rotunda Museum in Scarborough. A report on the discovery was written by William Crawford Williamson, the 17-year-old son of the museum’s first curator, John Williamson. This work included illustrations of the skull box and items within the tomb, as well as details concerning preservation methods and coffin dimensions.

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Illustration of the Gristhorpe Man’s skull box, J. and WC Williamson (Scarborough Museums Trust)

 

The Skull Box Drawing of Gristhorpe Man, J. and WC Williamson (Scarborough Museum Trust)

Profound Insights into Gristhorpe Man
Since then, numerous new and intriguing discoveries have been made about Gristhorpe Man. Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of Gristhorpe Man is his height. Standing at around 6 feet (1.8 meters), Gristhorpe Man is exceptionally tall for the Bronze Age period. This could be the result of a relatively good diet.

This allows archaeologists to infer that Gristhorpe Man was a socially elevated individual, likely a tribal leader. Additional clues to this status can be found within the burial site. Prior to being placed inside an oak coffin, Gristhorpe Man’s body was wrapped in a leather cloak, fragments of which have survived to this day. Other grave goods include a bronze dagger, stone flint tools, a willow basket containing food residue, and a bark container, which according to modern research, contained milk.

The Srubna culture of the Early Bronze Age and the unique wooden graves dedicated to the deceased, along with the earliest copper dagger ever found in England, were rediscovered alongside this ancient leader.

Indeed, this copper dagger will assist archaeologists in determining the exact age of Gristhorpe Man. Crafted from copper and polished with a handle made from whalebone, the dagger provides valuable insights. Based on the metal’s composition, it is believed that the majority of it originated from southwestern Ireland, while the tin came from southwestern England. Beyond illuminating ancient trade routes in the British Isles, this knowledge can also enable comparisons with other British examples with radiocarbon dating.

Gristhorpe Man was a warrior? Modern science also reveals that Gristhorpe Man might have been a warrior. This is due to the presence of many healed fractures. While we may never know whether Gristhorpe Man’s personality aligned with that of a typical warrior of the Bronze Age, some Victorian individuals believe it’s possible. Utilizing the ‘science’ of phrenology, although now discredited, some argue that one’s character could be determined by the shape of their skull. Based on the skull of Gristhorpe Man, a certain Dr. Elliotson concluded that his features included high combativeness and destructiveness, as well as low constructiveness and imitation.

In the book “Gristhorpe Man: A Life and Death in the Bronze Age” by Nigel D. Melton, Janet Montgomery, and Christopher Knusel, the authors document the analysis of scientific studies conducted at the University of Bradford and found evidence of a non-malignant tumor – a brain tumor in Gristhorpe Man’s skeleton, possibly the cause of his death. These intriguing revelations shed light on the social status, cross-regional connections, and burial rituals associated with this enigmatic elderly man.

Isotope analysis (a technique based on the radioactive decay of specific elements) on his teeth indicates a potential origin in Scarborough for Gristhorpe Man, implying a consistent meat-rich diet throughout his life. Through radiocarbon dating of tooth enamel and femur bone conducted at the University of Bradford, it is revealed that his death occurred around 4000 years ago.

Reconstructing the Face of the Gristhorpe Man (Commissioned by the Scarborough Museum)

Reconstructing the Face of the Gristhorpe Man (Trustee of the Scarborough Museum)

The Gristhorpe Man Speaks Out
Today, Dr. Elliotson’s physiognomic assessment of the Gristhorpe Man faces doubt. However, scientists have found an alternative use for the Gristhorpe Man’s skull. Utilizing the results of a significant number of experiments and investigations, a facial reconstruction of the Gristhorpe Man has been crafted. Researchers have also taken a step further by employing modern software techniques to create the effects of the Gristhorpe Man’s facial reconstruction. As a result, visitors to the Rotunda Museum can not only see how the Gristhorpe Man appeared in life but can also hear him speak—though in modern English rather than the Proto-Celtic language he might have spoken.

In 2019, the renowned Gristhorpe Man from the Bronze Age was transferred to a controlled museum facility during construction work at the Rotunda. The remaining parts were returned to the Rotunda Museum for display.