Gristhorpe Man – Britain’s best preserved early Bronze Age skeleton

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Dr Nigel Melton, Honorary Research Fellow at Durham University, on Gristhorpe Man – Britain’s best-preserved Early Bronze Age skeleton at the Rotunda Museum.

On the July 10 1834, 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, or 9.5km, to the south of Scarborough.

At a depth of more than two metres, they encountered a massive oak log 2.3 metres long and more than one metre in diameter that had been preserved in the waterlogged conditions of the grave.

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 World War II when they were removed for safety.

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