A woolly mammoth tooth found - thanks to a member of the public - at Saham Toney in January 2007. Photo Nigel Larkin © Copyright Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service
As a team of researchers settle down to study the results of a dig in Norfolk, one of the county’s top geologists has praised the public for their key part in notifying professionals about finds.
The week-long dig in a meadow near Saham Toney was undertaken at the end of January 2007 after a workman operating a digger in October 2006 discovered three woolly mammoth teeth and a couple of bones at the bottom of a gravel pit.
Knowing that Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service (NMAS) offer a free identification service for such finds, the driver contacted Nigel Larkin, NMAS Curator of Geology with his finds to see if they were of interest.
“They were basically digging a lake to put fish in it and the digger driver noticed a couple of bones and a couple of teeth,” explained Nigel Larkin, “It was interesting because they belong to quite a young individual.”
His interest piqued, Nigel went to visit the site and found more bone fragments as well as an area rich in tiny freshwater snails, other molluscs and ancient plant remains.
Archaeologists and geologists examine a trench at Saham Toney. Photo Nigel Larkin © Copyright Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service
“Once we dug the pit we found it contained lots of molluscs, which is quite unusual for a site like this and we soon found that what we had was an area with many fossiliferous deposits,” said Nigel.
“There’s pollen, beetles, macroflora – all in incredible detail. The really important thing about the site is that there’s not just one time window but a broad range of deposits covering from perhaps 10,000-120,000 years ago.”
The finds are of much interest to researchers of the Ice Age, and those looking into the early colonisation of the British Isles, and have led to a study involving experts from the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project from the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, Queen Mary University, London, and NMAS.
Norfolk is blessed when it comes to the remains of woolly mammoths and the flora and fauna of the Ice Age, as Nigel explained:
“Although we have not found any evidence of humans at the Saham Toney site, just three miles away downstream in the 1970s amateur archaeologists found three Neanderthal tools and in 2002, just seven kilometres away downstream, we found the remains of a dozen woolly mammoths and over fifty Neanderthal flint handaxes dated to about 60,000 years ago. Each of these sites are part of the bigger picture, part of the jigsaw.”
A hand axe discovered near the remains of a mammoth at a quarry in Norfolk in 2002. Photo: Steve Cole © English Heritage
Many parts of this jigsaw - including the remarkable 2002 discovery in a gravel pit at Lynford in which a dozen woolly mammoth skeletons were found with the remains of reindeer, woolly rhino, bison and over fifty Neanderthal flint handaxes - were unearthed by members of the public. The Lynford site turned out to be the best Neanderthal site ever discovered in the British Isles and is of international significance.
In fact the local public has been so eagle-eyed that significant discoveries in the area now cover the full chronological range from the lower, through middle, to late upper Palaeolithic.
1990 saw the first remains of the West Runton Elephant brought to the attention of Cromer Museum by enthusiastic locals. The Castle Museum with the Norfolk Archaeology Unit went on to recover the most complete example of Mammuthus trogontherii in the world - the oldest skeleton of its type found the UK, and possibly the biggest in the world.
Another remarkable find was unearthed by Mike Chambers, an enthusiastic local beachcomber, who discovered the first ever handaxe to be found in situ in the Cromer Forest Bed, which led to a series of excavations and the discovery of a second axe in 2004.
Further key discoveries have been made at Pakefield in Suffolk where Forest Bed lithics (stone tools) have been found. A responsible metal detectorist even brought in important evidence of a Late Upper Palaeolithic presence during the construction of the Thetford Bypass.
A pile of three well preserved mammoth tusks discovered at a quarry site near Thetford in 2002. Norwich Museums and Archaeological Service
The latest find at Saham Toney, coming as it does on the back of yet another positive contact with a member of the public, underlines the fact that ordinary people are the eyes and ears of archaeologists and geologists when it comes to discovering new sites.
“It is now a work in progress – there are months and months of work to be done to interpret all of this,” said Nigel of the latest find, “but this might turn out to be the only place that has this range of deposits in the UK. I think the site could be invaluable in the study of climate change during the later Ice Age.”
“What’s nice is that the man who found the mammoth tooth took it straight into Norwich Castle Museum,” added Nigel, “some of the most important Palaeolithic finds have been found by members of the public, amateurs and dog walkers.”
In East Anglia it seems they have the right blend of informed members of the public and a museum service which actively encourages people to bring in their fossil finds. It’s a relationship that should continue to further our understanding of the Palaeolithic era in the UK.