In July 1834 excavation of a barrow at Gristhorpe, near Scarborough, Yorkshire, recovered an intact, waterlogged, hollowed-out oak coffin containing a perfectly preserved Bronze Age skeleton that had been wrapped in an animal skin and buried with worked flints, a bronze dagger with a whalebone pommel, and a bark vessel apparently containing food residue. Gristhorpe Man became the centrepiece of the Scarborough Philosophical Society’s museum display. In 2004, planned refurbishment of the renamed Rotunda Museum provided the opportunity for a scientific re-examination of the burial and grave goods in order to eluciate the life and death of this extraordinary survival of the British Early Bronze Age. Tree-trunk coffin burials are relatively rare and Gristhorpe Man, with his range of grave goods was likely to have held a special role in society. Analysis of the skeleton included an examination of its skeletal morphology and palaeopathological conditions combined with isotopic analyses of the bones and teeth in order to investigate mobility, diet, and status of the individual whose unusual large stature, dentition, and novel methods of conservation were of particular interest. These analyses, combined with examination of the surviving coffin lid, including the unique ‘face’ carved onto one end of it, the grave goods, and radiocarbon and dendrochronological dating, reveal fascinating insights into the social position, inter-regional contacts and the burial rite associated with this enigmatic mature man who probably saw active combat and who suffered from a benign brain tumour that may have seriously altered his personality in his later years.
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