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WEEKEND WEB: Back to the time when mammoths roamed the Fens

Hand axes
Hand axes

GEMS FROM THE ARCHIVE: A monthly column by DR MARTIN BLAKE, of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, looking at interesting artefacts from its museum

If you’d looked out of your window 15,000 years ago (I know, but bear with me), you would have seen a landscape not of marshland and rich vegetation, but of barren, frozen tundra, not unlike the north of Siberia today.

Mammoth tooth
Mammoth tooth

For the animals living here it offered nothing but coarse, stunted grasses, and only the toughest could survive. Britain, like the rest of the northern hemisphere, was in the grip of a severe glaciation – an Ice Age.

Across this desolate landscape roamed herds of reindeer and horse, but for us the most iconic of all Ice Age creatures is the mammoth.

Like humans, these relatives of present-day elephants evolved in Africa about five million years ago, and spread north into Europe and Asia.

Along the way, they evolved into a number of species, and began to adapt in various ways to the colder climate they encountered, including developing the thick coats which we associate with them, enabling them to survive the onset of the Ice Ages about 1.8 million years ago where other species could not.

The collection of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society (SGS) includes a mammoth tusk found near Stamford, which is currently on loan to us, and a number of mammoth teeth, including the fine specimen illustrated here.

By any standards it is huge, some 10 inches (25.5 cms) long, 7 ½ inches (18.5 cms) at its widest, and 2 ¾ inches (7.5 cms) deep. The ridges across its face helped the mammoth to break down the coarse grasses which formed the bulk of its diet, and are diagnostic of the individual species; each had a different number of ridges, and as time went on they tended to become more numerous.

Of course humans inhabited Britain during the warmer intervals between Ice Ages, and the characteristic sign of their presence is the flint hand-axe, like the examples here from Norfolk, also in the SGS collection. Flint was knapped for a variety of purposes, such as to provide spearheads, knives and cleavers, and the sophistication of some of the later stone tools suggests that the skills involved in creating them may have been exercised by specialists.

Human remains from this period are very rare, however, and it seems likely that they were here in small numbers, perhaps no more than a few thousand at a time.

About 12,000 years ago, temperatures began to rise across the northern hemisphere, fitfully at first but then in a more sustained fashion. By 10,000 years ago, temperatures were probably as high, if not slightly higher, than today, and the first hardy trees, fir and birch followed by alder and hazel, began to recolonise the thawing landscape.

What is now the English Channel was a small river, and eastern England was connected to present-day Holland, Germany and Scandinavia by a vast plain, sometimes known as Doggerland.

But the melting of the huge volumes of water locked up in the ice began to raise sea levels; about 8,000 years ago, Doggerland was submerged beneath the North Sea, and a series of marine inundations along the coast of what is now Lincolnshire set off the processes leading ultimately to the fen landscape with which we are familiar today.

The terrain in which the mammoths had flourished all but disappeared, and these iconic creatures eventually went the way of other Ice Age specialists like the cave bear and the sabre-toothed cat. But there does not seem to have been a sudden dinosaur-like mass extinction.

Mammoth populations survived well into the post-glacial era, particularly in remote spots where, presumably, they were less at the mercy of human hunters. On Wrangel Island off the north coast of Siberia, one group hung on until 3,700 years ago, when Stonehenge was already an ancient monument.

Come along to the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society on one of the open days at our museum in Broad Street or, better still, become a member to enjoy our amazing collection and archive. We are a registered charity and an accredited museum, and welcome anyone aged 18 or over to join us. For details of our next open day, keep an eye on our website at sgsoc.org and our Facebook page, as well as the listings pages of the Spalding Guardian.


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