The West Runton elephant: a mammoth success

MARCH 2013

Over 100 people crowded into Martham Village Hall on a cold and windy March night to hear Professor Tony Stuart give an illustrated talk about the mammoth, its excavation and its life in prehistoric Norfolk.

The audience had come from far afield in the County, including Norwich, Wymondham, North Walsham and Beccles.  We were especially pleased to see a small number of youngsters, attracted by the intriguing thought of such huge animals roaming free across the land where they now live, play and go to school.

Tony (he was not at all “professorial”) gently conveyed the excitement that this discovery had generated some twenty-two years ago.  Bones of a mammoth the size of double-decker bus, as big as a tyrannosaurus rex, washed out of the low cliffs of North Norfolk.  It made the television news 700,000 years after it had died in the shallow waters of a marshy valley.

We learned a little of the geology of the area, of ice-sheets and of warmer inter-glacial periods when the climate and plant-growth were much like now, but when the animal life was remarkably different.  Everything seemed to be bigger then - moles, shrews, water rats, all twice the size we now see.  There were hyenas, bears, lions (would you believe), a sabre-toothed cat the size of a tiger but not a tiger, and top of the pile, our Mammoth and all his kind.

The painstaking excavation of the site took some years as not only the mammoth but many other remains were discovered.  Larger bones were first wrapped in tinfoil then coated with plaster and even splints to prevent breakage as they were lifted.  Most of the skull, with one huge curving tusk still attached, was lifted in a crate that had been built around it.  I guess that tusk must have been six feet long.  The thigh bones were so huge that a man could not span them with both hands.

A more detailed study of the bones and their distribution still proceeds.  It seems that mammoths, just like modern elephants, pay a lot of attention to the remains of their dead as the bones have clearly been moved about a lot - and no-one but other mammoths could have done this.  One tusk has been crushed by being walked on and about half the smaller bones (ribs, feet etc) have disappeared.  Close examination of the remaining bones reveals the teeth marks of huge hyenas - so no doubt they took the rest.

A rather sad point to end.  Our mammoth had been badly injured, one leg being dislocated at the knee, possibly during a fight with a rival.  Does this explain why, when he sank down into the marsh and died, he was only about 45 years old?

Thank you, Tony, for a talk which attracted so many, entertained and informed so effectively, and lived up to all that we had been led to expect.

                West Runton elephant

(Above: The West Runton elephant)
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