For over 175 years a dark brown mysterious skeleton has been held in the Rotunda Museum at Scarborough.
On July 10, 1834 members of the local Philosophical Society watched workmen dig up a tumulus on land at Gristhorpe between Scarborough and Filey. They revealed a large oak coffin with the skeleton and grave goods inside.
Their remarkable preservation was probably due to the water retaining properties of the local boulder clay. The blackening was due to a reaction of iron in the water with the tannin in the oak bark.
Radio Carbon dating of the coffin gave an estimated date around 1500 BC. Scientific examination showed the man had been well nourished and this might have explained his height (five foot 11 inches) unusual for the time. He was probably about 60 years of age and there were no obvious causes of death. From the manner of his burial it is assumed he was a British chieftain. The Bronze Age skeleton and the remains of the coffin take pride of place in the first floor “Shell Geology Now” Gallery.
This room also displays a partially restored 70 million year old lower Cretaceous Speeton Plesiosaurus skeleton found near Filey. On my visit I was meeting members of the Farnham (Surrey) Geological Society who had a tour of the museum booked during their field excursion to the Yorkshire and Durham coasts. They had contributed a donation to help display the Plesiosaur to full advantage and they were delighted with the result which was low enough to be seen easily by youngsters.
Children are encouraged to use the interactive displays in this room to solve problems caused by climate change and coastal erosion. I was pleased to see that the explanations were given by young female geologists to counter the assumption that professionals are usually men.
Young and old alike will enjoy the latest exhibition called ‘Scarborough’s Lost Dinosaurs’ which gives a realistic display of lush cycad vegetation and some smaller dinosaurs. I found the explanation of how dinosaur footprints are preserved very helpful. Footprints are commonly found on the Yorkshire Jurassic coast but the bones are more elusive.
The museum opened in 1829 and its design was strongly influenced by William Smith of geological map fame. It has undergone restoration that was completed in 2008. On the second floor the Rotunda has a painted cross section of the local coast, showing its geology clearly visible by craning one’s neck and looking upwards.
The cabinets exhibit impressive local fossils mostly from private collections and information, photos and busts of celebrated geologists. There was one display that caught my eye about William Buckland who found a cavern in Kirkdale, Yorkshire containing hundreds of bones including about three hundred hyenas teeth. He confirmed his identification by comparing the teeth with present day tropical hyenas.