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.
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.
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).
Historical atlas of North yorkshire. R. Butlin 2003
The bronze age tree trunk coffin burial. W.C.Williamson 3rd ed. 1872.