A Mammoth Elephant in Aveley, Essex.
The author as a very unlikely palaeontologist in 1964.
By Christopher Long
One day, in 1964, the phone rang and a good friend, Kim Allen, said he needed urgent help. At the time, aged 15, I already had a holiday job in his studio at Westerham in Kent, helping to build displays for the Natural History Museum.
It soon emerged that a young amateur fossil collector had discovered what appeared to be the remains of a 200,000 year-old woolly mammoth in a clay quarry at Aveley on the edge of the Thames estuary. In a race against time the plan was to expose the bones and remove them (still supported on their surrounding clay beds) to the Natural History Museum in Kensington, London.
There were two reasons for the urgency: first, the Tunnel Portland Cement Company wanted to resume quarrying as soon as possible and, second, there was a real fear that amateur fossil-hunters would loot and damage the site as soon as word of the remarkable find got out.
In the end the site revealed not only the remains of the mammoth but also of a now extinct form of straight-tusked elephant. Though tangled together they were thought to be separated by time the underlying elephant being earlier than the mammoth.
The author, with his father and younger brother, joined the team of NHM palaeontologists, led by Kim Allen, where they shifted tons of heavy clay, sifted the spoil, exposed the bones and prepared the cubes of bone-laden clay for transport to London where they were later to be re-assembled for study and display. The delicate business of shipping these fragile remains involved keeping the clay moist, supporting the clay blocks with timber shuttering, protecting the exposed bones with plaster of Paris and wrapping them in air-tight polythene sheeting.
The Aveley site, in a clay quarry north of Aveley village, was discovered by a 23 year-old amateur fossil-hunter, John Hesketh. Soon after, Dr Tony Sutcliffe of the Natural History Museum organised an emergency excavation and recovery project.
Unfortunately the story of the 'Aveley Elephants' soon leaked out to the press, leading to real fears that the site might be ransacked by fossil-hunters and by curious visitors. In fact the 'elephants' consisted of a mammoth (Mammuthus primigenus) and a now-extinct form of straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus).
Interestingly, the mammoth bones slightly overlay the elephant bones and were situated a little further up the quarry slope in a layer of peat while the elephant was predominantly found in separate strata of clays. Both, it appears, were lying in glacial deposits that overlay the London Clay.
At the time of the dig I'm not sure anyone was very certain how much time separated the demise of the two creatures and I cannot remember anyone being very certain about any dates at all. Now, more than forty years later, improved carbon-dating techiques must surely have resolved these questions.
Although the deaths of the creatures may indeed have been separated by a considerable period of time, they seemed to have met similar fates, probably trapped in some form of swamp or gulley. I think, but I'm not sure, that there was the possibility that such heavy animals might not have been suited to a warming climate where tundra was giving way to bogs and soft ground. I think there was also speculation that the carcasses of the animals might have been swept into the outer bend of what is now the River Thames, though at differing periods.
Another suggestion was that the living mammoth, in struggling to escape, might have embedded itself closer to the earlier elephant underneath. The effects of time and the compression of the strata would then have tangled them inextricably.
In the 1990s the same clay strata, elsewhere in Essex, revealed other exciting finds: for example, a jungle cat that now exists in China, Central Asia and Egypt, as well as a brown bear and a very large lion.
According to one recent commentator: "... the fauna at Aveley indicates that the deposits were laid down during a warm interglacial stage (about 200,000 years ago)... and that early mammoths tolerated the rising temperature and continued to live in southern England throughout this interglacial stage."
The author, a poor photographer at the age of 16 (and no better now) apolgises for the disappointing quality of the photographs below. They were taken by himself and others on a tiny Minox camera in poor lighting conditions under the awning that protected the site.
Their chief value is showing how the site was segmented into cubes of clay with the fossilised bones embedded in them. These blocks were then boxed into timber shuttering, strengthened with plaster of Paris, and then sealed in polythene to retain the natural humidity as far as possible.
The great fear was that the clay would dry and crack, distorting the lie of the bones, before they could be stabilised and reassembled for study and display at the Natural History Museum. These very heavy blocks had to be manhandled a long way to waiting transport since the use of cranes or fork-lift trucks on the extremely unstable and steep quarry slope might have caused catastrophic damage to the whole site.
Fifty years later, on 27-07-2014, the Romford Recorder published an article giving belated recognition to John Hesketh not only for his discovery but for bringing it to the attention of the Natural History Museum before the site was pillaged.
the photographs shown on this page (despite their poor quality) are the copyright (© 1964 and 2008) of christopher long, a poor photographer then and now, using a miniscule minox 'spy' camera...
© (2008) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.