Gristhorpe Man: An Early Bronze Age Log-Coffin Burial Scientifically Defined

Article excerpt

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This paper is dedicated to the late Dr Paul Ashbee, author of the classic 1960 volume 'The Bronze Age Round Barrow in Britain', who took an active interest in this project. His attendance and support at the Gristhorpe Man session at the BA Festival of Science in Norwich in 2006 were greatly appreciated.

The Gristhorpe discovery and Early Bronze Age log-coffin burials in Britain

In July 1834 William Beswick, the local landowner, and a group of friends opened a barrow at Gristhorpe, just north of Filey, North Yorkshire (Williamson 1896: 44). The barrow was the central and most prominent in a group of three on the clifftop (Figure 1). They recovered an intact log-coffin containing a flexed skeleton laid on its right side, with the head to the south and facing east. Organic and inorganic grave goods were recovered too and the complete skeleton, which was stained black in the manner of a bog body, was conserved by simmering it in a solution of glue. The skeleton was subsequently articulated and wired together for display by local doctors William Harland and Thomas Weddell (Scarborough Philosophical Society Minute Book for 1834; Harland 1932; K. Snowden pers. comm.). The finds were donated to the Scarborough Museum where, except for a brief period in storage during the Second World War, they have remained on display ever since (Figure 2).

William Crawford Williamson, the 17-year-old son of Scarborough Museum curator John Williamson, swiftly published a report: Gristhorpe Man was powerfully built, over 6ft tall and of advanced age, and a Brigantian chief (Williamson 1834). The technique of phrenology, then in vogue, was used to identify his personal qualities: combativeness, destructiveness, firmness, perseverance and self-esteem, traits necessary to fit him for 'high and important office' and to 'overawe a wild and uncivilized people' (Williamson 1834: 16). The skull subsequently featured in Crania Britannica (Davis & Thurman 1865).

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Parallels between the Gristhorpe coffin and Danish log-coffins were noted at the time of its discovery, and in 1836 the Gristhorpe coffin was compared to the log-coffin found at Toppehoj, Bjolderup (Rowley-Conwy 2007: 118), and illustrated alongside the Danish example in Antiqvarisk Tidsskrift (reproduced in Jensen 1998: 40). The perceived close connection with the Danish finds meant that when Thorns published his English translation of Worsaae's The primeval antiquities of Denmark in 1849, he did so in Worsaae's stated belief that the 'close connection which in old time existed between Denmark and the British islands, renders it natural that British antiquaries should turn to the antiquities of Denmark, and compare them with those of their own countries' (Worsaae trans. 1849: iv). Thoms' translation of Worsaae's 1843 work, which helped to make Thomsen's 'Three Age System' readily available in Britain, used as the prime example of such comparisons the Gristhorpe coffin and its contents, quoting Williamson's 1834 report in detail (Thorns, Preface to Worsaae trans. 1849: xi-xix). The Three Age System itself was developed in 1819, published in Danish in 1836 and translated into English in 1848. This fundamental advance in understanding enabled Williamson to revise his report 38 years later, assigning the coffin and its contents to the Early Bronze Age and distinguishing them from similar finds made in Denmark which he correctly identified as being of later Bronze Age date (Williamson 1872).

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The Gristhorpe log-coffin burial is one of 75 recorded in Britain that range in date from the twenty-third to seventeenth centuries cal BC (Parker Pearson et al. forthcoming). Although no certain example is known from Ireland, they are found throughout Britain from Scotland to the south coast and from East Anglia to Wales. Log-coffin burial was also practised during the Early Bronze Age in The Netherlands, Germany and Central Europe (Harding 2000: 105-107; Drenth & Lohof 2005: 439-40). …