Ice Age returns: Brighton Museum Chilled to the Bone

By Sarah Jackson | 04 April 2013

Exhibition review: Chilled to the Bone, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Brighton, until January 18 2014

A close up photo of a stuffed prehistoric boar's head on the wall of a gallery
© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
Do you think we’re in an Ice Age? That’s the question which greets visitors to Brighton’s newest exhibition.

Given the unseasonably cold weather this Easter, it’s a relevant question. You almost wonder if the curators who organised the exhibit had a sneaky peek at the long-range forecast before choosing their subject matter.

Climate change is one of the biggest and most controversial issues facing us today, so it’s no wonder that museums are starting to look back at other instances of climate upheaval in our planet’s history.

Earth has experienced five major ice ages, the most extreme of which – ‘Snowball Earth’ – saw ice reach the equator. Milder ice ages feature ice at either pole, meaning of course that we are still in an ice age; this feels all too likely at the moment.

Chilled to the Bone reveals that far from being a snowy wasteland, ice ages can represent great opportunity for certain life-forms.

Life as we know it relies on oxygen which is then like a poison to anaerobic life forms. Rising sea-levels can spell disaster to land dwelling animals, but provide great opportunity for marine life.

Although an interesting point to make, what does this disaster/opportunity balance really mean for humans? Should we feel comforted by the fact that some form of life has always managed to survive?

I think perhaps it is more comforting to discover that humans have survived through several ice ages when other apparently bigger and stronger animals have not.

A life size graphic of a cave bear, and a replica of its skull, reveals a huge and terrifying beast (although apparently it was mainly a vegetarian) – yet while the cave bear became extinct in Britain more than 100,000 years ago, human beings survived.

This reveals the greatest strength of the human race as a whole: our adaptability and ingenuity. Examples of hand axes and spear-throwers (atlatls) remind us that our ability to shape and adapt the environment to our purpose has always been the great strength of humanity.

Many of these objects would have been found in the 19th century “bone rush”, which saw Victorian scientists and gentlemen collectors searching across Europe for the origins of modern man.

Sussex was often at the centre of this rush, and the exhibition displays both the genuine finds from this period (including the skull of Boxgrove Man, the oldest known human ancestor in Britain) as well as one of the most famous scientific frauds in history, Piltdown Man.

Initially believed to have been an example of early man, tests during the 1950s revealed that the skull was a fake, made from the lower jaw of an orangutan no more than 500 years old and a human skull dating to 1200AD. Although not the real deal, this hoax once again proves the ingenuity of human beings.

As the coldest March for more than 50 years draws to a close, climate change seems like a more pressing concern than ever.

Although the future looks challenging – even frightening – Chilled to the Bone reminds us that although humans have faced huge challenges in the past, our flexibility and resourcefulness have enabled us to survive.

  • Open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm (open Bank Holidays). Admission free. Follow the museum on Twitter @BrightonMuseums. Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.

More pictures:

A photo of human skulls in a display case
© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
A photo of a large pair of Ice Age dinosaur jaws on a stand inside a museum
© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
A photo of a series of skulls inside a museum display case
© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
A photo of a set of jaws inside a museum display case
© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
A photo of a small hairy stuffed creature inside a museum display case
© Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
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