Gristhorpe Man: A Life and Death in the Bronze Age Project

Professor Christopher Knüsel 

 In July 1834 excavation of a barrow at Gristhorpe, near Scarborough, Yorkshire, recovered an intact, waterlogged, hollowed-out oak coffin containing a perfectly preserved Bronze Age skeleton that had been wrapped in an animal skin and buried with three flint artefacts, a bronze dagger with a whalebone pommel, and a bark vessel apparently containing food residue. Gristhorpe Man became the centrepiece of the Scarborough Philosophical Society’s museum display.

In 2004, planned refurbishment of the renamed Rotunda Museum (now the Rotunda, William Smith Museum of Geology) provided the opportunity for a scientific re-examination of the burial and grave goods in order to illuminate the life and death of this extraordinary survival of the British Early Bronze Age (see: http://www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.org.uk/our-venues/rotunda-museum/exhibitions/24-gristhorpe-man.html).

Tree-trunk coffin burials are relatively rare and Gristhorpe Man, with his range of grave goods, was likely to have held a special role in society. Analysis of the skeleton included an examination of its skeletal morphology and palaeopathological conditions, combined with isotopic analyses of the bones and teeth in order to investigate mobility, diet, and status of the individual whose unusual large stature, dentition, and novel methods of conservation were of particular interest. These analyses, combined with examination of the surviving coffin lid, including the unique ‘face’ carved onto one end of it, the grave goods, and radiocarbon and dendrochronological dating, reveal fascinating insights into the social position, inter-regional contacts and the burial rite associated with this enigmatic mature man who probably had undergone weapons training from youth and who suffered from a benign brain tumour that may have seriously altered his personality in his later years.

Gristhorpe Man: A Life and Death on the Bronze Age, co-edited with Nigel Melton and Janet Montgomery (Durham University), has been published by Oxbow Books, Oxford (see: http://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/gristhorpe-man.html).


Funded by: Scarborough Museums Trust, the University of Bradford, Royal Archaeological Institute, Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), British Academy, British Association for the Advancement of Science, The Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship (RF/6/RFG/2008/0253), Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)