There’s a mammoth behind Norfolk’s Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum.
At the moment the beast is a skeleton jigsaw. Pelvis, tusks and ribcage are laid out on shelves in grey storage lockers in a mid-90s warehouse. A diagram in bright primary colours tacked to the outside shows how the Pleistocene puzzle fits together. This 700,000-year-old male is the most complete steppe mammoth anywhere in the world, with 85 per cent of its bones present.
‘You would think that a big, chunky mammoth would be quite solid, but when it was dug up in the mid-90s it was the consistency of chocolate cake,’ says David Waterhouse, curator of natural history for the Norfolk Museum Service. As proteins were leeched into the surrounding sediments the mammoth became stuck in a soft mixture, he adds.
This made the mammoth, an ancestor to the woolly mammoth, difficult to extract from the West Runton Freshwater Bed where it was found. It took four years to clean and conserve the bones.
The steppe mammoth was the largest elephant species that has ever lived, and would have stood four metres tall, weighing around 30 tons. That’s double a modern-day African elephant’s weight.
A dislocated back leg killed the West Runton mammoth. ‘The missing bones were smaller than a hyena’s mouth. We know there were hyenas there because the bones have tooth marks,’ says Waterhouse.
One tusk has been crushed. ‘The hypothesis is that mammoths, like elephants, take an interest in their dead,’ says Waterhouse. The tusk may have been crushed when a curious fellow mammoth came to investigate the corpse.
There’s more hyena evidence, too. Fossilised droppings from a spotted hyena were also found at the site. In fact, there’s enough preserved evidence around the mammoth to reconstruct many details about the climate and biodiversity in the region when it died.
Beside the mammoth’s locker are green plastic bags filled with dirt from the dig site. These are sieved for beetle remains. Beetle species can be very particular when it comes to climate, and a beetle body in the right location can be a useful clue for working out a region’s historic climate history.
“The hypothesis is that mammoths, like elephants, take an interest in their dead”
‘For a time we thought there were no humans and mammoths around at the same time, but now we have evidence for humans. A human could have watched this mammoth die,’ says John Davies, chief curator for the Norfolk Museum Service.
‘There’s no evidence for humans hunting this species because those were earlier humans, and these were bigger than the woolly mammoth,’ adds Waterhouse. The climate would be similar to Norfolk today, except with macaques and mammoths.
Norfolk’s geology is allowing the county to become a focus for deep history. The fastest receding coastline in Europe brings new finds to the surface daily. The public bring around 20,000 specimens to the Norfolk Museum Service for examination every year.
A geological deposit, the Cromer Forest-bed Formation, laid down between 1.5 million and 500,000 years ago provides the backbone for these discoveries. These include the West Runton mammoth and Britain’s earliest known axe, the 500,000-year-old Happisburgh hand axe.
Waterhouse is keen to emphasise that investigations into deep history do not speed up coastal erosion. He points out that investigations often provide a break from sea action.
The West Runton mammoth was bound for a Museum of Climate Change, but plans for the museum faltered. Now the intention is to make a cast to serve as a centrepiece at Norwich Castle.
‘What we want to do is a 3D scan, ensuring minimal damage to the beast, and from that we would produce casts,’ says Waterhouse.
When the 3D cast is complete it would be the first outside North America where a similar technique has been used with mastodon skeletons.