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16 September 2006
Gristhorpe Man: a Bronze Age warrior chieftain?

Gristhorpe Man, who was found buried in a tree trunk in England in the 19th century, has been identified as a Bronze Age warrior chieftain by archaeologists. Although a few examples of burial in a scooped-out oak tree have been found in Scotland and East Anglia, it was an unusual method and the example found near Scarborough, North Yorks, was the best preserved.
     The remains were discovered in 1834 by William Beswick in an ancient burial mound near Gristhorpe and excavated under the gaze of members of the Scarborough Philosophical Society. The Bronze Age remains were originally donated to the Rotunda Museum in Scarborough and was taken to Bradford last year for a new evaluation while the museum was being refurbished, said Prof Heron, who discussed the work at the Festival of Science at the University of East Anglia. The team deduced that the man was indeed a high status individual "not unlike a tribal chieftain" judging by his height of six feet.
     Nigel Melton, who is leading the research project with Janet Montgomery and Andrew Wilson, said: "Growing to such a height may well have been because of a relatively good diet, an indication of social standing. He also boasts a full set of teeth in remarkable condition." Other clues to his status come from the grave goods, said Prof Heron. "There are a lot of artefacts. The body was wrapped in a skin cloak, of which only fragments survive." There was a bronze dagger, a bark vessel that was sealed in some way, flint tools, hair from the hide and a wicker basket containing food residue.
     The individual was in his forties, a reasonable age in those days, and seems to have died from natural causes. However, there were many healed fractures, consistent with the life of a warrior. But much of what was dug up almost two centuries ago has not survived. There was a lot of fatty material, probably from degraded body tissues, in the watery coffin which had dried out.
     The bones were blackened by a reaction of the iron in the water with the tannin in the bark of the coffin and the skeleton was preserved by boiling it in horse glue in a laundry copper, wrecking any chance by the latter day archaeologists to do a DNA study, or use collagen from the body for dating purposes. But the composition of a ceremonial bronze dagger helped confirm the dating, in work by Peter Northover, of Oxford University, that sheds light on ancient trade routes. "The bulk of the metal in it probably originated in south-west Ireland and the tin in south-west England. But by the time it was made into the dagger it had probably been recycled several times," he said.
     The work will permit comparison with radiocarbon dates from other British examples, as well as with the series of dendrochronological dates obtained from Bronze Age tree-trunk coffin burials excavated in Denmark where such burials are much more common. The isotopic make-up of the bones should also reveal whether Gristhorpe Man was a Briton or from the Continent.
     The Rotunda Museum in Scarborough plans to put him on display again next year, alongside details of the new insights and findings into his warrior life.

Source: Telegraph.co.uk (7 September 2006)

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