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13 July 2009
Gristhorpe Man slowly gives up his secrets

Last July 10th marked the 175th anniversary of the discovery of Scarborough's bronze age ancestor, Gristhorpe Man. Now residing in the Rotunda Museum (North Yorkshire, England), Gristhorpe Man, the tallest prehistoric skeleton measured to date, was found by William Beswick and members of the Scarborough Philosophical Society in 1834.
     The museum is holding a special event to commemorate the finding of Gristhorpe Man, which is back in its original resting place following a move to the Department of Archaeological Sciences at Bradford University. Found in a large oak coffin after workmen dug into a tumulus on a burial ground on Gristhorpe cliffs, the skeleton was found wrapped in a hide cloak. It is regarded as the best example of an oak tree trunk burial. Blackened by a reaction between the iron in the water and the tannin in the bark of the coffin, the bones were placed in a laundry copper and simmered in a thin solution of glue made from horse bones before being air-dried for several days.
     Karen Snowden, head of collections for the Scarborough Museums Trust, said the discovery was made more remarkable by its condition. "His find was unusual for two reasons. Firstly, most oak coffins tend to have no remains, with the bones dissolving, and secondly, all the little bones on his fingers and toes are still intact." She said although he may not have been the bronze age warrior chief some perceived him to be, he was still a well-respected figure at the time of his death. "He was someone of importance and definitely over 45. Unfortunately, the test only goes up to that age, so we can't get a definite age. But he was a big man and well nourished, who led a reasonably easy life and there was no indication of suffering from his bones. He is the tallest prehistoric skeleton which has been measured known to date. He also had a complete set of teeth, which was not uncommon, because there was no sugar."
     Buried in a big, lavish ceremony, the Gristhorpe Man had some very expensive goods with him in the coffin, including a dagger with a whale bone pommel and copper blade. Karen said further investigations had now revealed more about his life, and tests had dispelled some theories about what he was buried with. She said: "The horn ring they found with him now looks likely to be part of Gristhorpe Man himself as a piece of cartilage from his throat, and what was first thought to be mistletoe berries are now thought to be something more unwelcome for him, such as kidney stones." Karen added: "Filmmakers will be here in late July and early August looking at the Gristhorpe Man and the work carried out in Bradford, and while there has been a digital reconstruction of his face, Dr Alan Ogden has produced a reconstruction that speaks in English but also in bronze age language."
     The Rotunda Museum is holding the drop-in event on Saturday August 1, from 11am to 4pm. It is free with a Rotunda day ticket or open return ticket. For details call 353665.

Source: Scarborough Evening News (9 July 2009)

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