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Druid, Druid, wherefore art thou? - Gristhorpe Man.

In 1834, members of Scarborough Philosophical Society examined the contents of a round barrow on Gristhorpe Cliff, between Scarborough and Filey. Their report ('The Discovery of a Tumulus at Gristhorpe', dated 1834. An article appeared in Gentlemens Magazine at about the same time) was written by a seventeen year-old William Crawford Williamson, son of the secretary. Young William would later go on to become Professor of Natural History at Manchester University.

The Gristhorpe barrow contained the skeleton of a man, wrapped in an animal skin, and placed in an oak-built, boat-shaped coffin. Grave goods included a bronze dagger with whalebone pommel, a food vessel made of bark, three flint implements, and a sizeable quantity of vegetable matter. The whole thing was covered with oak branches. (Note : the dagger has been dated at 1,640 b.c. ± 100).

The use of oak, both in the construction of the boat and in the covering, is interesting enough. But even more interesting was the fact that Williamson identified the vegetable matter as mistletoe. Originally anyway. And there lies the tale. Williamson re-issued his 1834 pamphlet in 1836. It was quoted in Crania Britannica by Messrs. Thurnam and Davis in 1856. The mistletoe identification stands up to that time – and then vanishes without trace. In 1872, Professor Williamson issued a completely revised version of his pamphlet, in which mistletoe was not mentioned. This was not an oversight. In his Reminiscences of a Yorkshire Naturalist of 1896, he again refers to the Gristhorpe excavation, but, again, omits all reference to mistletoe. Perhaps in later life he had come to consider the evidence inconclusive.

The Gristhorpe discoveries of 1834 had far-reaching implications. The Celts spread over quite a large area of Europe in the few centuries before Christ. But the Druids, who were thought to be Celtic priests, apparently did not. They were found only on the British mainland, in northern France, and in Ireland. So a question arose as to whether the 1st century b.c. Celts had brought their Druids here, or had found them here, and subsequently adopted the Druidic faith.

The Druids worshipped the oak and, particularly, the mistletoe. The fact that both were found in a religious setting, along with a dagger dating from at least 1,000 years before the Celts' arrival in Britain seemed conclusive ; the Druids were native Britons, not Celts. (Note : perhaps the best summary of discussion on this subject prior to 1930 is to be found in Kendrick's 'The Druids' [Chapter 6] dated 1927).

There, the matter rested for over a century. Then, in 1937, Mrs. Harriet Elgee upset everyone's apple-cart. At Loose Howe, near Rosedale Head, she discovered another boat burial with grave-goods very similar to those at Gristhorpe. Here, however, the wood covering was of hazel branches. This suggested that the wood covering in Bronze Age burial mounds could be of any type, a view seemingly supported by later finds which included floor coverings of hazel and of birch. Thus, the Gristhorpe-based thinking on Druidism was completely undermined. Perhaps Druids were Celts, after all (though the question of why they were not found in the majority of Celtic areas in Europe remained).

It would be another half-century before further significant headway was made on the subject. Then, Dr. Burl pointed to Imbolc alignments at Swinside (Cumbria) and at the Girdle Stanes (Dumfries-shire). Like the Gristhorpe dagger, these north-western stone circles pre-date the arrival of the Celts by at least 1,000 years. Imbolc can not, therefore, be a Celtic festival as previously thought. So now the argument has swung back towards an indigenous Druidism. Possible 107º alignments at Simon Howe, and at Tripsdale may well add fuel to Dr. Burl's fire.

'Celtic' priests, 'Celtic' festivals, 'Celtic' objects of worship, 'Celtic' languages – so much that was previously thought to be 1st century b.c. Celtic seems to be gradually fading back into the mists of time, and into the eternal mystery of the Britsh Isles countryside. Both Gristhorpe and Loose Howe have played prominent parts in this academic saga, and there may easily be more twists to come.

Note 1 : The Gristhorpe finds, including the re-constructed skeleton, are on permanent display at the Rotunda Museum, Scarborough. The Loose Howe exhibits are in the British Museum.

(Note 2 : the concept of a great spiritual journey by boat was later adopted by Christianity, and many early Christian stories involve sea journeys – The Voyage of Brendan probably being the most famous example. The word 'nave' [the main body of a church] is derived from Latin navis – a ship – as, of course, are the words 'navy' and 'navigation').

hotaire Posted by hotaire
14th October 2009ce

Comments (1)

That is very interesting and well written (as was your forum post on the subject). I always thought Imbolc was an ancient pagan festival linked to the turning of the seasons "first green shoots". I didn't know know it was directly linked to the Celts only that it was just there at the beginning of February. Early February is my very favourite time of year - the light really does return in an early morning sun-burst.

What you say about the word nave is interesting too ... is this why the 'holy islands' are held as sacred, I wonder. I read recently they were considered a stepping stone between this life and the next (not sure if atheism had caught on just yet).

Thanks again for an excellent piece of writing.
tjj Posted by tjj
15th October 2009ce
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