On Friday 17th January, Gristhorpe Man: A Life and Death in the Bronze Age was launched at the Rotunda Museum in Scarborough, where the remains of this significant Bronze Age skeleton have been housed for over 175 years. We spoke to one of the volumes editors, Professor Christopher Knüsel, who specialises in bioarchaeology and took part in the physical analysis of the skeleton.
How did you become involved in the re-examination of the Gristhorpe remains?
I was approached by Nigel Melton and Janet Montgomery to work on the human remains of Gristhorpe Man, and Vaughan Wastling, an MSc. Human Osteology and Palaeopathology student at the time, carried out the initial study as part of his MSc. dissertation, under my supervision. Vaughan is thus the second author on the ‘Physical Analysis of Gristhorpe Man: A Bronze Age Osteobiography’ chapter. Alan Ogden, who undertook the facial reconstruction and animation of it, joined in the analysis in order to contribute this skill as well as his dental palaeopathology expertise. Niels Lynnerup undertook CT imaging manipulation of the remains and consulted on the differential diagnoses of the pathological conditions. Both Alan and Niels benefit from formal medical training that complements my anthropological and anatomical training and Vaughan’s anthropological and archaeological background and both his and my funerary archaeological interests.
What were the main aims of the project and what were you expecting to find?
As Nigel Melton notes in the volume, serendipity played a large part in the genesis of the Gristhorpe Man Project. When Nigel discovered that the Rotunda Museum was closing for refurbishment, he and Janet recognised an opportunity to re-study the remains in their totality: the grave inclusions, human remains, and coffin using modern techniques, as well as the original site of the burial. Nigel in his youth, like many young people, remembers visiting the Museum and the Gristhorpe display, so the Project drew most of us back to this and other museum displays we remembered from youth and that played a fundamental role in developing our later professional interests. The ‘Man’ then was already something of a legend, and we hoped to provide more detailed and up-dated information about his life and death and to compare this with William Crawford Williamson’s two 19th-century treatments of the remains. These treatments, prepared nearly 40 years apart also permitted us to chart the course of the earliest developments of what would later become the discipline of archaeology, which Nigel Melton and Peter Rowley-Conwy realise wonderfully in their contributed chapters to the volume. As a rare, published log-coffin burial, Gristhorpe Man played a role in C.J. Thomsen’s creation of the ‘Three Age System’, which – though modified by more recent relative and absolute dating techniques – remains a cornerstone of archaeological time-keeping to this day. Ultimately, we hoped to better elucidate the time and world in which Gristhorpe Man lived.
See the above piece. Gristhorpe Man came to be synonymous with the Bronze Age, as a very complete and well-appointed burial of that distant prehistoric period – and a fully analysed and published denizen of that time! There are indeed few well-published finds from the early days of archaeology, a discipline which in the 1830s, at the time of the discovery of Gristhorpe Man, had not yet become differentiated from its antiquarian roots, with its ultimately destructive interest in ‘grave-digging’ for artefacts.
Were there any excavation techniques used in the original discovery that you think may have been detrimental to the preservation of the remains?
Yes, undoubtedly, but as a whole the result seems amazingly good. As in many archaeological investigations, today and in the past, one would wish that the record-keeping had been more robust, more detailed. Williamson realised early on the error of not creating what we call a ‘plan’ of the burial today at the time of excavation. This means we are not able to be certain of the exact placement of objects within the burial. The location of finds aids in understanding what fragmented pieces of objects once represented. It also means that dress items cannot always be differentiated from grave inclusions, items added to the burial that were not worn and extends to those that perished as a result of exposure to air upon excavation. This extends to the relative placement and position of the skeletal elements and their relationship to objects. The absence of the hyoid bone, but presence of ossified thyroid cartilage and even more rare tracheal rings, the latter identified as artefacts – which are more ephemeral and more difficult to recover – still puzzles me, as it does those with interests in differential preservation of buried remains, such as Andy Wilson, Rob Janaway, and Sonia O’Connor with conservation science backgrounds.
What archaeological advantages are there to be gained from the near completeness of the Gristhorpe skeleton compared to other, less intact remains from the same period?
The completeness of the human remains permits methods and techniques to be employed, such as stature reconstruction, that are usually only applicable with the relatively well-preserved and more complete and unfragmented modern forensic cases. The completeness and good recovery of the remains greatly aids differential diagnosis of the dental, as well as the various traumatic injuries of the jaws and torso that Gristhorpe Man sustained during life. Most importantly, it permitted differential diagnosis of the benign neoplasm (cancer) that provided the basis by which to compare the condition with modern cases to elucidate the likely behavioural effects of the condition. The completeness also contributes significantly to facial reconstruction and display of the remains. Visitors will be able to more easily identify with a very complete once-person than with myriad fragments.
How much are we able to deduce about the physical activity of the Gristhorpe man during his lifetime based on osteological analysis of the skeleton? Was this comparable to the average individual of the same period?
Gristhorpe man bears a number of conditions attributable to both physique and advanced age-at-death. Ossification of entheses (the attachments of tendons and ligaments), as age-related conditions (i.e. they increase in their prevalence with age), but also with heightened physical activity that also finds expression in the extent of the asymmetrical use of his right arm. Gristhorpe Man’s robust physique and well-developed skeleton attest to his having had a powerful but lithe build. From what we know at present, he was one of a group of such individuals that date to the early Bronze Age, but that this type of physique did not characterise all near contemporary individuals. At the present time, this apparent population variation requires further elucidation in order to establish regional and temporal insights into this physical phenomenon. Whatever the general case, the physical attributes appear to have had manifest social consequences for some, as attested in the Gristhorpe Man’s healed injuries and elaborate burial re-visited burial location, indicative of a remembered legacy.
How accurately are archaeological techniques able to establish a cause of death using skeletal remains of this age?
Anthropological techniques applied to archaeological remains are rarely, if ever, able to identify cause of death, which is often derived from the condition of soft tissue that does not preserve. In Gristhorpe Man’s case, there is no evidence of a fatal condition, but there are some associated with morbidity (i.e. ill health) that could eventually have contributed to his death when he suffered a compromised immune response to a more common bacterial or viral infection or to cardiovascular insult such as heart ailment or stroke. This is, in fact, the way in which many people die to this day. That the physical insults sustained by Gristhorpe Man are healed suggest that at least in his earlier life, prior to his death, Gristhorpe Man benefitted from a healthy and robust immune response suggestive of good living conditions from early in life onwards. The healed nature of the dental conditions adds further, highly informative information on this question. My colleague Alan Ogden will tell you that dental disease, in itself, is both a morbid condition and also potentially fatal due to septicaemia and the stress such conditions place on the body’s systems. This is based on clinical studies of modern sufferers, as indeed is all interpretation – all are based on analogy with clinical studies, some recent and some now centuries old.
Can we use burials such as Gristhorpe to draw any conclusions about the general health of the population of the time, given the fact that such individuals generally belong to the social elite?
Yes, it is indeed a rarity to observe an individual suffering from multiple health insults and showing evidence of healing indicating survival of them. Evidence for conditions associated with the affluent more recently, such as renal stones, in the context of a robust physique and considerable stature, with indications of a diet high in protein, suggest that a considerable social and economic divide separated Gristhorpe Man from others in his time. The action of individuals like him may have benefitted those in close association, but the system guiding this potential beneficence looks to have been as troubled in attaining a more equal distribution of basic resources necessary for successful growth and good health as more recent social systems. In fact, it seems that the Bronze Age marks a time when such differences in life experience became more embedded in the social structure and organisation of human societies in Europe. Over the longer term of later prehistory, the instability of these elites (as monitored by an apparent lack of continuity in their presence in time and place) indicate that we should not see them as inherited class-based differences, but they are indicative of the potential for such differences to develop, even if they did not apparently develop into long-lived lineages of leaders who headed up dynastic families that are found in later historic periods of Europe’s past.
What did you find to be the most surprising discovery during your examination of the remains?
There are two findings that hold pride of place as most surprising. The first clearly is the evidence for a benign probable haemangioma, one of the oldest such conditions ever recorded. The second relates to the tremendous asymmetry of Gristhorpe Man’s upper limbs, attesting to heavy use and reliance on the upper right limb in physical activities, in excess of that recorded for the grand majority of individuals known from their skeletal remains. In the context of stature and body mass reconstructions that compare with those of athletes such as Ryan Giggs, this demonstrates that physically imposing presence and habitual highly strenuous exertion were requisites to support socio-political pre-eminence. A final further realisation comes as a result of this project: the incredible advantage of working in a sizable team of persons with diverse and complementary knowledge of the really impressed itself on me. It is an insight that benefits my involvement in current larger-scale projects, such as that at Neolithic Çatalhöyük (Turkey).
Gristhorpe Man: A Life and Death in the Bronze Age is now available to purchase from Oxbow Books.