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West Runton Elephant
The story begins on 13 December 1990 when, following a stormy night, local residents Harold and Margaret Hems took a walk on the beach. They found a large bone partly exposed at the bottom of the cliffs, and contacted Norfolk Museums Service. It was identified as a pelvic bone of a large elephant. Just over a year later after another storm, several more huge bones were uncovered. This was obviously a find of major significance, and in January 1992 the first exploratory excavation took place. Once the results of this had been evaluated, a second major 3 month excavation followed in 1995.
What had been uncovered was an example of the largest species of elephant that has ever lived, and the largest animal ever to have lived on land except for the very biggest dinosaurs. Standing four metres high at its shoulder, it would have weighed about ten tons – twice the weight of any male African elephant you would find today. It is the largest elephant skeleton ever found and is the oldest elephant skeleton to have been found in the UK (some individual bones or teeth from elsewhere are older, but none make even a partial skeleton). The West Runton Elephant skeleton is also the best example of this species ever to have been found. Previously the best were two partial skeletons, one in Germany and the other in Russia, both only about 10-15% complete. The WRE skeleton is about 85% complete.
West Runton Elephant
West Runton Elephant part 5. What Happened Next.
In the laboratory, the protective plaster jackets were carefully removed, piece by piece. The sediment and soil was 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 the biggest bones) to ensure we would not damage the surfaces of the bones. During the cleaning process the fine details became clear - such as the tooth-marks and droppings of the spotted hyaenas that were scavenging from the elephant carcass. We kept a photographic record as we worked and made copious notes. We could soon tell how old the elephant was when it prematurely died, and, as the interesting pathology of the diseased and deformed right knee area slowly revealed itself, the reason why became clear.
After all the bones were cleaned, and repaired where necessary, they were described and catalogued. Small bones were then stored in trays or boxes of archival quality (i.e. they will last for many decades, and do not contain harmful chemicals), in specially cut nests in archival foam. The larger bones posed a problem. Being so big (up to 1.5m long) and so heavy (most need two people to move them) but also very weak (because they are only sub-fossil bone) they could easily be damaged by poor handling. To solve the problem permanent, rigid jackets were made for them to lie in. A soft archival foam layer is placed closest to the bone, with a rigid resin jacket supporting it beneath. When a bone is to be moved, or turned over, another jacket is bolted to the upper surface, the bone moved or turned, and the uppermost jacket taken off again. The heaviest bones are stored on trolleys.
All the bones are stored in a climate-controlled environment. If the temperature or humidity levels varied greatly the specimens would react by expanding and contracting slightly. If this occurred more than a few times the material would begin to break down physically, and the elephant material would be irreversibly damaged. Had we been able to leave the elephant in the ground for another fifty million years, it might be well fossilised and less vulnerable! But had we left it there at West Runton the sea would have destroyed it within just a decade.
Mammals found in the West Runton Forest Bed
- Mammuthus trogontherii (steppe-mammoth - the West Runton Elephant),
- Sorex savini and Sorex runtonensis (shrews),Talpa minor (extinct mole),
- Trogontherium cuvieri (giant beaver-like rodent), Pliomys episcopalis (vole), Mimomys savini (water vole), Pitymys arvaloides and gregaloides (pine voles),
- Ursus deningeri (extinct medium-sized bear), Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis (extinct rhinoceros) and various species of: water shrew, large shrew, small horse, marten, mustelid, elk, bison, otter, small cat, jaguar-sized cat, sabre-toothed cat and two species of giant deer.
Extinct in the UK
- Russian desman
- Barbary macaque
- Common hamster
- Northern vole
- Spotted hyaena
- Common vole
- Wild boar (was present until hunted to extinction in the 17th Century)
- Beaver (became extinct in the 12th Century)
Still present in the U.K.
- common mole
- bank vole
- wood mouse
- pine marten
- noctule bat
- pygmy shrew
- red deer
- roe deer
- horse (re-introduced by man)
Other flora and fauna found in the West Runton Forest Bed
Frogs, toads and other amphibians, grass snakes, freshwater snails, waterfowl, and various freshwater fish. A lot of wood was found (mostly alder), and also macroflora and pollen suggesting a climate very similar to today.
Frequently Asked Questions:
How do we know it was a “he”?
Because of the size and shape of the hip bones. Female elephants have a different shaped pelvis for giving birth to young elephants.
How tall was he?
About four metres high at the shoulder, much taller than modern elephants.
How much did he weigh?
About ten tons, twice the weight of a male African elephant.
How old are the fossils?
About 600,000 – 700,000 years old.
How old was the elephant when he died?
We know from the wear on his teeth that he was “in his prime” – in his forties, and would normally have lived to his sixties.
Was it a mammoth or an elephant?
Technically he is a very early mammoth, which is a type of elephantid. It was the descendants of this species that became what we call the “woolly mammoths” that lived in the colder conditions of the ice ages and were a lot smaller.
How did the West Runton Elephant get to England, did he have to swim?
No, Britain was attached to the continent at that time.
What animals hunted the elephant?
None, they are far too big to be hunted - except by humans (but we have no evidence of humans from the Freshwater Bed).
What other animals were around at the time?
Spotted hyaenas, giant beaver, extinct big cats, extinct species of rhino, extinct giant deer and other deer.
Why don’t we have elephants in England now?
Because of a combination of things: Successive ice ages stressed our native animals to such an extent that many became extinct naturally. But hunting by early humans may also account for their demise. After the last ice age sea levels rose, creating the North Sea which then prevented land animals from re-colonising Britain.
What did he eat?
Grass, herbaceous shrubs and other vegetation in an open forest and grassland environment.
Back then was it colder or warmer than today?
We know from the small mammals and the pollen from the plants that at the time the West Runton Elephant lived the climate was exactly the same as today. Although the list of animals living with the elephant sounds exotic, this is because we have lost these species due to hunting and the effects of the relatively recent ice ages, not because the climate was any different back then.
What can we see on display?
There is currently a small exhibition on the elephant project at Cromer Museum, and the lower jaw of the elephant is on display at the Castle Museum, Norwich. There is an informal display of text and pictures at the Beach Café at West Runton itself. There will be a major, permanent, exhibition of the West Runton Elephant remains and local geology in general in one of the Norfolk Museums in the future, but it is still a few years away.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
“The West Runton Elephant”, Norfolk Museums Service poster, 1993.
“The West Runton Elephant Discovery and Excavation”, Norfolk Museums Service booklet, 1997.
(The two items above and also “The West Runton Elephant video” are available from all the Norfolk Museum shops)
“The West Runton Elephant”, Ashwin T and Stuart A J, September 1996, Current Archaeology 149, 164-168.
“Pleistocene Environments in the British Isles”, Jones R L and Keen D H, 1993, Chapman and Hall.
“Mammoths”, Lister A M and Bahn P, 1995, MacMillan.
“Pleistocene Vertebrates in the British Isles”, Stuart A J, 1982, Longman.
“Life in the Ice Age”, Stuart A J, 1988, Shire Publications.
“The Ice Age in East Anglia”, Stuart A J, 1989, NMAS information sheet.
“On the Track of Ice Age Mammals”, Sutcliffe A J, 1986, British Museum (Natural History).
The West Runton Elephant Excavation and Conservation Projects were financed mostly by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, the MGC PRISM Fund, and Anglian Water.
Theme: Coastal Environment
Exhibition: West Runton Elephant
black and white photograph of Cromer coxswain Henry Blogg with the Prince of Wales at a presentation ceremony in the Central Hall, Westminster, London
Six steel double-pointed needles, of size 16 and 17 gauge, the type used for knitting ganseys.
West Runton Elephant. A reconstruction drawing by Sam Brown of the likely appearance of the West Runton elephant.
Gansey knitting stick or shield
Cromer Museum have kindly invited me to come & do my Propagansey talk & display this Satu…
photograph, colour slide, photographer Dr A.J. Stuart, 1990. Harold Hems measuring the pelvis of a large bull elephant in situ in the West Runton Freshwater Bed. 1990
The Davies family taken between 1907 and 1909
A black and white photograph of Cromer coxswain Henry Blogg with the Prince of Wales at a presentation ceremony in the Central Hall, Westminster, London
In March 1915 Rev Hamilton wrote in the Cromer Parish Magazine that he had been talking to Tom Ba…
photograph, colour slide, photographer Dr A.J. Stuart, 1992. Artist Sam Brown worked with Tony Stuart to envisage what the West Runton elephant looked like - this is one of his sketches. 1992