A collaboration between the University of Bradford and the Rotunda Museum, Scarborough.
In July 1834, William Beswick, a local landowner, dug into a barrow on the cliffs at Gristhorpe.
He discovered an intact coffin, fashioned from the hollowed-out trunk of a massive oak tree, which contained a perfectly preserved skeleton stained black from the oak tannins, wrapped in an animal skin and buried with a range of grave goods that included a bronze dagger, flints and a bark container.
The finds were donated to the Rotunda Museum at Scarborough and the excavation report published that same year by William Williamson, the 17-year-old son of the museum curator. The report is remarkable both for the young age of the author and for being well ahead of its time (right: moving the skeleton in 2005).
Williamson went on to have a distinguished academic career as Professor of Natural History at Manchester and a Fellow of the Royal Society.
The Gristhorpe finds have remained on display at the Rotunda since 1834 with very little subsequent investigation.
In 2005, the museum closed for refurbishment and the finds were transferred to the Archaeological Sciences Conservation Laboratory at the University of Bradford for a complete re-assessment using modern archaeological and forensic scientific techniques.
The skeleton has been re-assessed and CT scanned. Gristhorpe Man is one of the tallest men known from the Early Bronze Age in Britain and received a prestigious burial. Isotope analysis of a tooth has indicated he originated from the Scarborough area and ate a lot of meat when he was young. Radiocarbon dating of the tooth dentine has shown that he died around 4000 years old (right: CT scanning the skull).
We analysed the artefacts buried with the body, including metallurgical and isotope analyses of the dagger blade, analysis of the bark container and its contents, a re-assessment of the “mistletoe berries”, and microwear on the flint knife. A study of the coffin lid looked at the unique ‘face’ carved at one end and dendrochronological and radiocarbon dating of the tree rings provided a date for the oak coffin.
We have carried out geophysical surveys and a small excavation on the site of the original discovery. These have located the 19th century dig and revealed details of the barrow construction and its preservation. We took pollen samples that enabled us to build up a picture of the local environment at Gristhorpe 4000 years ago.
The findings of the scientific study were incorporated into the new display of ‘Gristhorpe Man’ when the Rotunda Museum opened in 2008 (right: re-assessing the skeleton).