Significant find with a terrifying appearance

Gristhorpe Man on display in Scarborough's Rotunda Museum.
Gristhorpe Man on display in Scarborough's Rotunda Museum.

He’s been terrifying local children for years, so it seems appropriate in the run-up to Hallowe’en to take another look at Scarborough’s most famous skeleton – Gristhorpe Man.

Far from being a tacky fun-fair sideshow, this blackened skeleton is an internationally important piece of archaeology – Britain’s best-preserved Early Bronze Age skeleton.

On July 10, 1834 William Beswick, a local landowner and keen antiquarian set out with friends and workmen to investigate a barrow on his land on the clifftop at Gristhorpe between Filey and Scarborough.

Digging down to a depth of over two metres, they came across a massive oak log measuring 2.3m long and more than 1m in diameter which had been preserved in the waterlogged conditions. The next day, they returned with a group of members of the Scarborough Philosophical Society – which had recently opened the Rotunda Museum in the town – and set up a windlass, or winch, to raise the log.

In the process it split and they discovered that it was in fact a coffin containing 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, including a bronze dagger blade and whalebone pommel, flints, and a bark vessel containing what was believed to be a plant resin designed to act as a waterproof coating.

Beswick donated the finds to the new Scarborough Philosophical Society Museum the same day and the skeleton became known as Gristhorpe Man. Along with his coffin and grave goods, he has remained on display in Scarborough ever since, apart from a brief period in World War II when he was removed for safety, and the period described below.

By early this century, little work had been carried out on Gristhorpe Man since his discovery despite the significant advances in archaeological science.

In 2005 to 2008, whilst the museum was closed for restoration, the finds were stored in the controlled environment of the conservation laboratory in the Department of Archaeological Sciences at Bradford University, providing 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 computerised tomography, or CT, scan and a facial reconstruction.

Dr Alan Ogden, who created the reconstruction, said at the time: “I was able to build a facial reconstruction from the amazingly well survived skull from what is arguably the best-preserved 4,000-year-old skeleton in Britain.

“[Our] investigations showed that he had lived in the area most of his life and had usually been in good health. He was tall and muscular and had lived on a rich and carefully prepared diet. We presume therefore that he was part of a local ruling family.”

A battery of other techniques were also employed on Gristhorpe Man, who’s believed to have been aged between 45 and 60, including radiocarbon dating; lead, strontium and oxygen isotope analyses of his tooth enamel; carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses of tooth dentine and material preserved in a glass phial labelled as ’brain’, and Raman spectroscopy of what were originally labelled as ‘mistletoe berries’ – and which in fact turned out to be kidney stones.

Dr Ogden said: “He would have spoken a form of Proto-Celtic that we can only guess at. I hope that the visitor to the museum can visualise him as a living man, a senior figure in his society, used to being obeyed and probably even revered.”

So, it’s official – Gristhorpe Man is nothing to be frightened of, despite appearances.

But if you do fancy a bit of a Hallowe’en scare, you might want to visit the Art Gallery on Saturday October 31 for a Museums at Night special: Ghosts at the Gallery, presented in partnership with the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s Outreach department, will start at 7.30pm. For further information, please visit the website: www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.com

Gristhorpe Man is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the Borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.Dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.