West Runton Mammoth

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West Runton Mammoth
Fossilized remains
Mammuthus trogontherii122DB.jpg
Steppe mammoth
Official name: Mammuthus trogontherii
Country United Kingdom
Location Found at the base of a cliff on West Runton Beach
Geology Cromerian Stage
Period 866,000–478,000 years ago
Date 1995
Management Norfolk Museums Service
Visitation Cromer Museum, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Norfolk Collections Centre (Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse)
Discovered by 1990
 - date

The West Runton Mammoth is a fossilized skeleton of a steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) found in the cliffs of West Runton in the county of Norfolk, England in 1990.[1] The find is the largest nearly complete mammoth skeleton known, and is the oldest found in the United Kingdom.[2]

The unearthing[edit]

The cliffs at West Runton

After a very stormy night on 13 December 1990, local residents Harold and Margaret Hems[3][4] were walking along West Runton beach. They found that a large bone had been partially exposed at the base of the cliffs by the actions of the previous night's storm. The couple contacted Norfolk Museums Service, who soon after identified the object as a pelvic bone of a large steppe mammoth. After another storm just over a year later, a local fossil hunter, Rob Sinclair, discovered more huge bones and it soon became obvious that the site was of major importance. In January 1992 the Norfolk Archaeological Unit undertook an exploratory excavation at the site. As a result of this a second major three-month excavation followed in 1995.[5]

The excavation[edit]

The 1995 excavation of the site was carried out by the Norfolk Archaeological Unit and funding from the Heritage lottery Fund and from Anglian Water was gained for the project by Norfolk Museums Service. The meticulous excavations lasted over a period of three months. The Unit recorded every detail of the remains of the animals and other fossils in the deposit. A laser theodolite was used to produce maps, made by carefully drawing and plotting the position of the bones and other finds. Specialists from around the world were called in to collect and study all the pollen, macroflora, microfauna and sediments found at the site. The stratigraphy, mineralogy and chemistry of the site was also studied and recorded. During the excavations almost ten tonnes of soil were delicately removed a trowel-full at a time, to be sieved for the tiny bones of frogs, newts, lizards, snakes and small mammals and birds.[6]

Conclusions[edit]

The mammoth skeleton found at West Runton is the best example of the species Mammuthus trogontherii to be unearthed so far. Previous finds include two partial skeletons found in Germany and Russia, both of which were only about 10 to 15% complete. The West Runton specimen is 85% complete. From these remains it has been deduced that the West Runton Mammoth stood some 4 metres (13 ft) at the shoulder and would have weighed in at 10 tonnes (11 short tons). This is twice the weight of the modern African elephant Loxodonta africana. The mammoth was male.[7]

From the study of the pollen and the discovery of other amphibians, snails and small mammals from the site, it was discovered that the landscape consisted of bodies of slow moving fresh water near to the sea, with a good amount of vegetation and moist woodland present. The climate was classically Pleistocene, almost identical to the climate today.[citation needed]

Preservation[edit]

All the bones of the West Runton Mammoth were carefully wrapped in tissue paper and foil before being encased in plaster of Paris and supported by large splints to protect them. A special cradle was constructed to support the well-preserved skull and huge tusks. The skull and tusk were lifted out from the bed by crane on the last day of the dig before the hole was filled back in. All the bones and the tusks were put on pallets and taken from the site by lorry to the conservation laboratory at Gressenhall.[8]

At Gressenhall, all the carefully prepared protective paper, foil and plaster was removed from the bones. The concreted soil and sediment were removed with brushes, small dental tools, pins, scalpels and fine jets of high-pressure air containing slightly abrasive powder. All this work was done under a microscope, even on the biggest of the bones, to ensure that no damage was done to the surfaces of the bones. During this process it was discovered that the carcass of the elephant had been scavenged by spotted hyenas (shown by the teeth marks found on the bones) and also hyena droppings were identified. Some interesting pathology revealed that the elephant had a diseased and deformed right knee, which was likely to be the cause of this relatively young animal's demise.[9]

After the cleaning and repairing process was completed, the material was catalogued. All the smaller bones were then carefully placed in specially cut nests in archival foam and then placed in special archive trays or boxes designed to last for many decades. For the larger bones, permanent rigid jackets were created for them to lie in and within these jackets a soft archival foam layer was formed closest to the bone, with a rigid resin jacket supporting it from beneath. The heaviest of the bones are stored on their own trolleys for ease of movement. All the bones are stored in an environmentally controlled special building containing heaters and dehumidifiers to keep the environment at the right temperature and humidity.[10]

Exhibitions[edit]

Due to the weight and size of the remains of the West Runton Mammoth, only a few selected bones are on display in Norwich Castle Museum, Norfolk Collections Centre at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum and at Cromer Museum.

Further research[edit]

On 30 March 2011, it was reported in the news that researchers from the University of York and Manchester had successfully extracted protein from the bones of the West Runton Mammoth. Using an ultra-high resolution mass spectrometer, bio-archaeologists managed to produce a near complete collagen sequence. This was a landmark occasion for bio-archaeologists for even a few years ago they didn't believe it would have been possible to find any collagen in a skeleton going back some 600,000 years. The collagen sequencing was carried out at the Centre for Excellence in Mass Spectrometry at the University of York. Although shorter peptides (chains of amino acids) have been allegedly reported from dinosaur fossils....this is arguably the oldest protein ever sequenced to-date. This research formed part of a study into the sequencing of mammoths and mastodons. Despite the age of the fossil sufficient peptides were obtained from the West Runton skeleton to identify it as being part of the elephantidae family, which collectively include both elephants and mammoths.[11]

References[edit]

Coordinates: 52°56′27″N 1°15′13″E / 52.9408°N 1.2535°E / 52.9408; 1.2535