Secrets of the 6ft tall Bronze Age warrior

Writing a book on one of the world’s most exciting archaeological and historical finds – the Gristhorpe Man – has been a long and personal journey for one of its writers.

Research fellow at Durham University Dr Nigel Melton was born in Scarborough and was taken as a boy to the Rotunda Museum to see the perfectly preserved Bronze Age skeleton.

“There is a certain serendipity to being involved in this book,” said Dr Melton. “And to have it at the Rotunda with the main guest himself present is very special,” he said.

With his fellow experts – Janet Montgomery, a Reader in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, and Christopher Knusel, Associate Professor of Bioarchaeology at the University of Exeter – he has spent the past decade researching and writing the Gristhorpe Man.

“Working with this guy for so long, he has become a friend,” said Dr Melton. “To be able to contribute to the further advancement of what we know about the Gristhorpe Man was a great opportunity for me.”

The story of the Gristhorpe Man began on July 10 1834 when William Beswick, a local landowner with antiquarian interests, set out with friends and workmen to investigate a barrow on his land on the cliff top at Gristhorpe. It was about six miles to the south of Scarborough.

At a depth of more than 6ft, they encountered a massive oak log more than 7ft long and more than 3ft in diameter that had been preserved in the waterlogged conditions of the grave.

He was 6ft tall and had a full set of healthy teeth.

They returned the following day with a number of gentlemen from the Scarborough Philosophical Society and set up a windlass to raise the log. In the course of this operation the log split, revealing it to be hollowed out and to contain a perfectly preserved skeleton, stained black by the tannic acid in the oak, wrapped in an animal skin and accompanied by a range of grave goods.

The latter included a bronze dagger blade and whalebone pommel, flints, and a bark vessel containing what they considered to be food residue.

William Beswick donated the finds to the Scarborough Philosophical Society Museum the same day – ensuring, with remarkable foresight, their survival for modern scientific examination. The skeleton became known as Gristhorpe Man and he, along with his coffin and grave goods, has remained on display in Scarborough ever since, apart from a brief period in the Second World War when they were removed for safety. Little further work had been undertaken on them, despite the significant advances in archaeological science since the 19th century, and this important assemblage had largely slipped off the radar of even Bronze Age specialists – until Dr Melton and his associates took up their project.

An opportunity for sophsiticated analysis came when the Rotunda closed from 2005 to 2008 for a lottery-funded restoration.

Gristhorpe Man and the artefacts found in the barrow on the Wolds were stored in the controlled environment of 
the conservation laboratory in the Department of Archaeological Sciences at Bradford University. “This provided an ideal opportunity to re-examine them using a range of scientific techniques. An osteological and palaeopathological re-assessment of the skeleton included a full body CT scan and a facial reconstruction,” said Dr Melton.

“A battery of other techniques were also employed: radiocarbon dating; lead, strontium and oxygen isotope analyses of tooth enamel; carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses of tooth dentine and of material preserved in a glass vial labelled ‘brain’. There was a raman spectroscopy of what were labelled as ‘mistletoe berries’ – they turned out to be renal stones.

“There was an investigation by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry of the contents of the bark container and the ‘brain’ material and proteo-mics analysis of the skeleton and animal skin.”

There were also sophisticated analyses of the bronze dagger blade, as well as scanning electron microscope examination of artefacts including the animal hide and flint knife.” One of the most surprising finds was evidence of a benign brain tumour.

“It had obviously been there a long time as the bones had remodelled themselves round it. It would have put enormous pressure on his brain, impaired his speech and might have changed his behaviour and physical ability,” said Dr Melton.

What has remained constant, though, is the physical prowess of the man.

“Many fractures attest to the fact he was a battler. He was tall and muscular and had a high protein diet.

“All these things meant he had a high status in the society in which he lived.”