The Gristhorpe Man

Bronze age burial and culture in Northern England

The Gristhorpe Man and his world.
Gristhorpe is a small village on the North Yorkshire coast in northern England, about 5 miles south of Scarborough, just on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds.  The area is rich in prehistoric barrows. One such barrow, now known as the Gristhorpe barrow or Gristhorpe tumulus, was dug into in july 1834 by the then landowner William Beswick and a group of his friends. The Gristhorpe tumulus was the most prominent of a group of three barrows which stood close to the cliff top, overlooking the North Sea.

It had originally been a stone cairn which was later covered with clay and turf. What they found inside the barrow was a large wooden coffin made from a hollowed out trunk of an oak tree. 

Unfortunately only the lid of the coffin now remains intact. Oddly, the barrow seems to have been dug into about 500 years after the original burial, and oak branches had been laid over the top of the coffin. No one seems to know why this took place but it makes you wonder why the occupant of the grave was still being in some way venerated or remembered after such a long time. The coffin lid has a carving at one end which is in the rough form of a human face, though it was more discernible when first excavated than it is today. The coffin was buried in a north / south position with the head end facing south. Inside was the perfectly preserved skeleton of a tall man, stained black from the oak tannins, and wrapped in animal furs. He was lying on his right side facing the sea (to the East). The waterlogged clay had kept the remains in almost perfect condition.  It is now known that the burial took place around 2,200 b.c, in what was the early bronze age in Britain and the Gristhorpe man is one of the best preserved bronze age burials in Europe. 

                                    Gristhorpe cliffs.
Log coffin burials from this period are extremely rare in Britain. They are more common in Denmark but the Gristhorpe burial is about 700 years older than any yet found there. There are also log coffin burials from this time known from Germany and the Netherlands. People were probably migrating or exchanging ideas back and forth across the North Sea, possibly settling in different areas, as they always had. It should be remembered that only a few thousand years before this the area of the North Sea between Yorkshire and Denmark was actually dry land (Doggerland) which was slowly overwhelmed  by the sea as the sea levels rose after the last ice age. This was quite a long time but a memory of the bond between these cultures could have remained in folklore and stories as well as family ties, especially given the degree of travel and trade which is now known to have existed.

Anyway, the man was about 6 ft tall, and had been around 60 years old when he died, He also had an almost full set of teeth. Tests showed he had had a high quality diet all his life, mainly of vegetables and meat, and oddly not much seafood even though he lived very close to the sea. Maybe he just didn't like fish. All this makes a lie of the old idea that prehistoric people were undernourished and unhealthy, lived a brutal life and then died young. By this period in time the people in this area were probably growing barley and possibly rearing animals for food as well as hunting wild animals and gathering wild fruit and other foods, in a climate probably warmer than the present, where water chestnuts grew in the east Yorkshire wetlands. 
He had been born locally (In the Scarborough area rather than the Yorkshire Wolds which are close by) and probably lived in the area all his life, though contrary to popular belief people travelled widely in bronze age Europe, trading between the Mediterranean, Ireland, Scandinavia, etc. in amber, metals, flint and other resources. Scarborough would have been a busy place at that time with the easily defended headland being an economic centre for bronze working and trade from distant sources. Keep in mind that this is the period in Britain when the main structure at Stonehenge had already been built, and when most stone circles were already old. Examples of remains from around this period are everywhere to be seen in the area, including Rudston Monolith (the tallest standing stone in Britain) which is not far to the south across the Wolds, and many other barrows etc in the immediate vicinity, one of which contained the famous Folkton 'drums' which are now in the British Museum (why are they too not in the Scarborough museum ?), and the varied remains of prehistoric rock art and other remains on the North York Moors a few miles to the north. Thornborough Henges sacred landscape, a massive ritual centre including barrows, henges, and a cursus, which has been described as the most important prehistoric site in the north of England, lies just 50 miles to the west and must have been well known to the Gristhorpe people at this time. The famous Mesolithic village at Star Carr is also less than 5 miles to the west, but this is from a much earlier period, about 8 - 9,000 b.c. about 6,000 years before Gristhorpe man lived, though this shows a long continuity of habitation in this area. The bronze age in Britain was a rich, artistic and diverse culture. Far from the 'primitive' people scraping a meagre living from the soil that many people still imagine.  

                                                  Thornborough henges.
Archaeologists assume that because the Gristhorpe man had a healthy diet and lived a long life he must have been a chieftain or some high ranking member of society, but this doesn't have to be the case....maybe the whole tribe was just well fed !  However, the style of burial would seem to indicate someone important or maybe just well liked.
There were several artefacts found with the body, a bronze dagger ( the copper of which the bronze was made had originally come from Ireland ) with a pommel made from a cetaceans (whales or dolphins ) jawbone, a flint knife, a basket, and bones from the feet of a fox and a pine marten. These may have been amulets just as people sometimes wear rabbits feet etc.
A couple of other interesting points....
It seems that the Gristhorpe man had some kind of benign tumour growing in his brain, which although it probably wasn't the cause of his death, would probably have given him severe headaches and probably epileptic seizures. Many ancient cultures regard people with epilepsy as gifted or special because during their seizures or trance states they are seen to have the ability to communicate with the otherworld and gather important information from the spirits, or to possess healing powers. This type of Shamanism would have been typical and commonly practiced in bronze age Britain so this may be why he was still being venerated long after his death. He was thought by his original discoverers to have possibly been a druid or priest of some kind, and although technically speaking druids were the priests of the Celtic peoples in the iron age, this is just playing with words.....the bronze age shamans and Celtic druids would have probably been indistinguishable from each other, with a continuity in their sacred beliefs and practices.  Just a different name.
This leads me to the next point. Originally, one reason he was thought to be a druid was because mistletoe berries were found in his coffin, and mistletoe was a sacred plant to the druids because of its magical and healing properties. Archaeologists now believe these berries are actually gall stones or kidney stones, though this is disputed as a sample of the berries / stones could not actually be used for the analysis.
The Gristhorpe man was put on display in the Rotunda museum in Scarborough soon after his discovery and is still there today with his grave goods etc, though i have to say the modern display is not nearly as interesting as the old one i remember as a child.

The Rotunda museum, Scarborough


Willy Howe, a barrow from the same area and period as the Gristhorpe man and very similar to how his barrow would have looked before being excavated (i.e. robbed).'mistletoe_berries'_in_aBronze_Age_log_coffin_burial

Historical atlas of North yorkshire. R. Butlin 2003

The bronze age tree trunk coffin burial. W.C.Williamson 3rd ed. 1872.

Of barrows, hollow hills, standing stones and sacred streams.

Of barrows, hollow hills, standing stones and sacred streams.
This is a slightly random post. It meanders, but then so does the stream which is its inspiration, the gypsey race, which flows like an ancient thread through the hills of the Yorkshire Wolds.

The Great Wolds Valley Sacred Landscape.
The Yorkshire Wolds is a plateau of chalk / limestone hills a few miles south of Scarborough. Bordered to the west by the vale of York and to the east by the north sea, with steep sided valleys, and some dramatic cliffs at the seas edge. It is an area with many well preserved archaeological remains from the Neolithic period and the bronze age, and particularly rich in ritual monuments and their folklore and legends, which make up the Yorkshire Wolds sacred landscape. Hundreds of bronze age round barrows are known in the area, as well as the Rudston monolith, which is the tallest standing stone in Britain , Duggleby Howe, which is one of the largest round barrows in Britain and is thought to date from the late Neolithic (about 4000 yrs old), no less than 4 Neolithic cursus monuments, Willy Howe barrow, and many others.
Probably the best known feature of this ritual landscape is the Rudston monolith . This huge bronze age standing stone towers 25 feet above ground, and legend says it is as long again under the ground. The ground level was raised in 1861 by 5 feet, so the monolith prior to that was presumably 5 feet taller (30 ft). It stands in the cemetery surrounding Rudston church and there is another smaller stone in the north east corner of the churchyard which, supposedly, originally stood nearer to the monolith. Excavations in the 1700's are said to have found a quantity of skulls around the base of the monolith. The stone itself is siliceous sandstone (gritstone) and was reportedly brought from Cayton Bay, which is about 10 miles away across the Wolds, on the north sea coast, just south of Scarborough (though the Rudston village website says that the stone was brought from Whitby, 40 miles to the north). Rudston was obviously a ritual site of great importance to the people who raised the stone and built the numerous other monuments here, as was the whole landscape for miles around.
The legend of how the monolith came to be in the church yard says that the devil tried to destroy the church by throwing the huge stone at it, but he missed and the stone has been there ever since. Nonsense of course as the stone has been there about 3,600 years.  Far longer than the church, but it's a nice story.
There are also reputedly fossil dinosaur footprints on the stone, though i've personally never noticed these.
There are plenty of other interesting ancient sites around the Wolds Ritual Landscape, such as Willy Howe Barrow, Duggleby Howe Barrow, Ba'l Hill, and the whole area is rich in folklore and fairie legends.  This whole antiquarian magical landscape seems to be centred around the sacred stream known as the Gypsey Race, which winds for miles across the Wolds. This great complex of barrows, old stones and huge cursus monuments seems to follow the Gypsey Race from its source at the village of Wharram-le-Street,  past Duggleby Howe Barrow, Willy Howe and Ba'l hill, right through Rudstons four great cursus monuments, around the monolith and away to the east, before reaching the sea at Bridlington, forming one huge ceremonial centre.
Gypsey streams (there are more than one on the Yorkshire wolds ) are streams which flow intermittently, sometimes being dry for long periods then springing back into life unexpectedly, presumably because of variations in the water table.

The Gypsey Race too has its legends, including one that says when the race flows it is a sign of impending disaster, and the most interesting (to me) says that people who drink from the stream are granted the ability to foretell the future.
The Gypsey Race flows east past Duggleby Howe, a large Neolithic barrow, one of the largest in Britain, surrounded by a ditched enclosure covering about 25 acres.

Ba'l hill

Beyond Rudston the Gypsey Race passes Southside Mount, another Neolithic or possibly bronze age barrow, and the 'barrow cemetery' at Rudston beacon.
Then it flows on past a variety of ancient sacred sites / monuments, including Willy Howe (which ive written about here...., Ba'l Hill, which is another neolithic barrow, Maidens Grave Henge, Argham dykes, and the group of 4 cursus monuments which cluster around Rudston itself.

The amount of work, energy, time, planning etc that must have been put into this huge ritual complex is staggering and shows that it was obviously of huge importance in ancient times, much more than is obvious from this now relatively quiet and peaceful rural landscape.
The landscape bordering the Yorkshire Wolds is also steeped in legends and folklore.  Filey, a small town on the coast, is home to its own dragon legend.  
Filey Brigg is a strip of land which juts out from the northern end of Filey Bay into the North Sea.

One legend says that a dragon once lived in the area, and the local people decided to do away with it. They baked a huge sticky cake (known locally as parkin) and fed it to the dragon. It was so sticky that the dragon had to go to the seas edge to wash its mouth, and was drowned. It's bones remain visible as Filey Brigg.
On february 28th, 1934 a local coastguard named Wilkinson Herbert saw a 'dragon' in the sea at Filey, with an 8 ft long neck, a 30ft long body, and two huge humps. It had four legs with flippers. He described it as "a most gruesome and thrilling experience". Maybe it was a relation of the dragon that drowned, or maybe it wasnt a dragon at all but something else entirely.

  Whether or not the dragon has something to do with the local peoples pagan beliefs is not known, but apparently filey people were only converted to christianity as late as the early nineteenth century, by a preacher named John Oxtoby. But dragons are very difficult to kill..........

Whilst on the subject of flying fiery things, the story of the 'Wolds meteorite' comes to mind.....On December 13th 1795, during a tremendous thunderstorm, a meteorite fell to earth near the village of Wold Newton. People heard a hissing noise overhead and the meteorite crashed into a field belonging to one Edward Topham, the local magistrate.  It was duly dug up while still warm and smelling of sulphur, and weighed approx 55 lb.  It was later exhibited in London and i believe it is now on display in the Natural History Museum in London.

                                                                        The Wold Newton meteorite.

Duggleby howe

The Yorkshire Wolds sacred landscape was clearly a very important place over a very long period of prehistory, both to the people who lived here and probably to people far beyond the local area too. But the Wolds do not exist in isolation, there are many other ancient monuments and places which have a magic of their own close by. The famous Folkton 'drums' were found in a barrow nearby, the world famous Mesolithic site of Star Carr is right on the edge of the wolds, The North York Moors with its own sacred landscapes (such as Brow Moor, with its wealth of prehistoric rock art ), and its many stone circles, standing stones and barrows etc is just a few miles to the north. All these combine with the many ancient legends and stories to give an insight into ancient beliefs and cultures of the people of prehistory in this area.

The Folkton 'drums'.

Yorkshire wolds