A Prehistoric Puzzle

This impressive set of bison horns from Worcester City’s collection has been painstakingly put back together by an expert conservator.

Its history is just as fascinating: in the early 1830s a young natural historian Hugh Strickland was attempting to make sense of the confusing geology that made up the Vale of Evesham. Men working in the quarries that scattered the landscape would bring him any unusual bones that they came across.

This set of horns was found in Bricklehampton, near Cropthorne. Strickland thought it was an aurochs- a type of extinct giant wild cattle. Upon writing to Richard Owen, founder of the Natural History Museum and the man who coined the term ‘dinosaur’, Owen identified it as a steppe bison, a close relative of the aurochs.

For hundreds of thousands of years — right up until the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago — bison, along with mammoths, lions and all sorts of other exotic and extinct animals, would have been a common sight in Worcestershire.

Claire Cheshire, Collections Assistant

during conservation

Giant wombats

Museums Worcestershire not only cares for the remains of giant Ice Age animals from our county but also those from around the world.

One of the earliest additions to Worcester City’s natural history collections is recorded in June 1848; a number of fossils mostly jawbones with teeth from Australia brought over by Mr Hughes. Henry Hughes with his associates, the Isaac brothers, travelled from their native Worcester to Sydney around 1839 and then on to the grasslands of Darling Downs in Queensland where they became some of the very first ‘squatters’ in that area during a tumultuous period in Australia’s history.

The fossilised Australian bones in the Worcester collection were analysed and identified by Richard Owen. Owen was at the forefront of the study of natural science in the nineteenth century and he is best known for both coining the term ‘Dinosaur’ and as the founder of London’s Natural History Museum.

In 1838 Owen drew and published one of these fossils as the first example of its type; part of the jaw and teeth of the Diptrodon, the Giant Australian Wombat. The Diptrodon was the first fossil mammal to be identified from Australia and to have one of these original specimens in Worcester is very exciting.

The giant wombat was the largest marsupial that ever lived, weighing 2800 kilograms and growing to just under four metres in length and 1.7 metres to the shoulder. Until its extinction 25,000 years ago, it roamed the Ice Age woodland and scrublands and later, as the climate dried, the grasslands of Darling Downs.

How to look after a Moose

Worcestershire’s changing Ice Age landscape, at times marshy, briny grasslands, sometimes covered in permafrost, and other times covered in flowering plants was maintained by herds of large animals, such as Mammoth and Aurochs – the solitary Moose appeared nearer the end of the Ice Age, with the arrival of the great forests.

This example of the North American Moose, also known by its scientific name alces alces, is still found in North America, Russia, Scandinavia and the Baltic today, but disappeared from Britain towards the end of the Bronze Age around 3,000 years ago.

Whilst the Moose was not widely hunted during the Ice Age in Britain, the existence of this later specimen is evidence of man’s devastating effect upon the Moose population in more recent years. Many such specimens were swapped between collectors and institutions in the early days of natural history research.

Preparing the Moose head in Worcester City’s museum collection for display involved brushing, shampooing and polishing. A domestic carpet cleaner was massaged into the hair and removed with cloths, dislodging years of dust and detritus. An alcohol solution was then applied and patted off, to ensure that no residues were left behind. The glass eyes were cleaned, small areas of skin were re-painted, and the antlers buffed.

The Allesborough Handaxe

In 1997-8, a discovery on the surface of a field near Pershore brought an ancient and unusual archaeological find to light.

It is a Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) handaxe: a stone multi-tool used by early humans for butchery. The once-sharp edges are worn smooth from millennia spent in river gravels. Whilst other materials would have been used by our ancestors, only durable stone tools survive for us to study. It was probably made during one of the warm periods within the Ice Age, between 300,000 and 424,000 years ago, by hunter-gatherer ancestors of both modern humans and Neanderthals named Homo Heidelbergensis.

Most local handaxes are made from flint or quartzite, but this one uses a rare and unusual black volcanic rock. The nearest matching sources are Cornwall or Yorkshire, so the rock was either brought to Worcestershire along seasonal migration routes, or carried here by glacial activity. Either way, our ancestors were drawn to its striking, unusual appearance when they selected it to make this tool.

Much of the archaeological research for this era focuses around southern England. However, there have been a number of important Palaeolithic discoveries in the West Midlands. The area holds crucial clues to our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain.

This object was researched as part of the wider Heritage Lottery Funded Lost Landscapes of Worcestershire project, a partnership between Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service and Museums Worcestershire celebrating the area’s Ice Age past through exhibitions, events and workshops.

 

Rob Hedge and Claire Cheshire

The rock that rolled

Erratics are large pebbles or boulders that have been transported and deposited often some considerable distance from their origin, usually by glaciers. By comparing the rocks with those from possible originating areas, it is possible to monitor and plot past ice movements across large areas.

Worcester city collection has three such specimens in its collection, all of which are on display in the Museum and Art Gallery.

Around 40,000 years ago, at the height of the Ice Age, these granite boulders were brought to the area by ice sheets. When the ice finally melted about 13,000 years ago, the boulders were left behind.

The two largest specimens were both found in Claines having travelled down from the Lake District and Criffel in South West Scotland.

The smallest specimen is a little more mysterious. Looking through our historical records, an entry states that in the early years of the 20th century ‘a large, smooth stone was dredged from the river Severn and taken to the museum’. We think this entry might well refer to our smaller boulder and that it was then added to the collection.

Mammal Bones Conservation

Over the next year, Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service and Museums Worcestershire are working on a Heritage Lottery funded project to celebrate Worcestershire’s Ice Age past through exhibitions, events, blogs and workshops.

As part of the project, conservation work is being carried out on some of the earliest items that came into the Worcester City collection.

No.128 Bos / bison skull and horn cores from Bricklehampton.

Ice-age conservation

This specimen was in several pieces (see image below). It had clearly been put together in the past with glue and plaster of paris, with a wooden dowel inserted into the left side of the skull and into the left horn core, held with plaster. The plaster had given way.

The edges of breaks were consolidated with Paraloid B72 consolidant and then pieces were glued back together with Paraloid B72 adhesive. The wooden dowel was re-used as support is required for the large, heavy left horn core. Once the adhesive had set, plaster was applied around the dowel inside the horn core. NB there is a metal rod acting as a supporting dowel in the tip of the right horn core. Large cracks were filled with plaster of paris. All plaster was painted to closely, but not perfectly, match the surrounding bone so that an expert eye can tell where the gap-filler is.

Ice-age conservation2

Above, the repaired specimen with the plaster unpainted. Below, with the plaster painted.

Ice-age conservation3

No.173 Taurus primigenius horn core from Eckington.

The proximal end of this horn core was in several pieces. Many could be relocated, but not all.

The edges of breaks were consolidated with Paraloid B72 consolidant and then pieces were glued back together with Paraloid B72 adhesive. Once the adhesive had set, large gaps were filled with plaster of paris to provide additional strength and robustness to the specimen. All plaster was painted to closely, but not perfectly, match the surrounding bone so that an expert eye can tell where the gap-filler is. One piece of bone in this bag does not belong to this specimen.

Ice-age conservation4 Ice-age conservation5

Above left: the specimen before repair. Above right, the specimen after repair.

No.143 Bison priscus limb bone from brickyard

Ice-age conservation6This specimen was in two pieces, where an old repaired break in the mid-shaft had failed. Old glue was removed with a scalpel, the edges of the break was consolidated with Paraloid B72 consolidant and then the two pieces were glued back together with Paraloid B72 adhesive.

General

All the specimens were inspected to see what further conservation work was required. As the surfaces were generally quite friable and fragile, only limited cleaning could be undertaken. This consisted of using an airbrasive unit utilising compressed air laced with a small amount of sodium bicarbonate powder, followed by cleaning with just compressed air. A few vulnerable friable areas were consolidated with Paraloid B72 but this was kept to a minimum so as not to adulterate the specimens.

Thanks to Nigel Larkin for this report.

Millicent the Mammoth

Every day thousands of motorists stop at Strensham Services, by Junction 8 of the M5 in south Worcestershire. Few are aware that, 200,000 years ago, Strensham was the final stop for a very different traveller: a young adult Woolly Mammoth, 20-25 years old.

She came to drink from a shallow pool and died there, her body settling into the soft mud. She was discovered by archaeologists during construction works in July 1990, along with bones from at least five other mammoths and a red deer antler. Initially christened Marmaduke, she was swiftly renamed Millicent once she was found to be female.

Mammoths are often associated with Arctic conditions, but the presence of cold-averse species of molluscs within the Strensham deposits reveals that Millicent lived in a climate similar to Britain today, during a warm period within Marine Isotope Stage 7 (243-191,000 years ago). The Strensham pool lay within a marshy meadow, surrounded by heath dotted with stands of trees. Millicent lived alongside familiar faces such as wolves, foxes and wild boar, but also woolly rhinoceros, cave lion, bison, and the fearsome cave hyaena. Millicent is just one example from half a million years of Palaeolithic prehistory in the region.

Rob Hedge
Lost Landscapes Project Officer 

Conserving the Clifton Mammoth Tusk

a large curved tuskThe excavation of a woolly mammoth tusk by Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service at Clifton Quarry, just south of Worcester in March 2016, has led to conservation work to ensure its long-term protection.

Specialist conservation work on the mammoth tusk was very generously funded by Tarmac who own and work Clifton Quarry. The tusk was waterlogged when found so it was dampened and covered in plastic to ensure that it dried out slowly, reducing the chances of splitting and delamination which can occur in waterlogged specimens.

Once it had dried, the surfaces of the tusk were gently cleaned and strengthened. A second phase of conservation work was required a few weeks later as the tusk adapted to the environmental conditions at Worcester Art Gallery and Museum.

Between 2017 and 2018, thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service (WAAS) in partnership with Museums Worcestershire will bring the Lost Landscapes of Worcestershire back to life, with events and exhibitions celebrating half a million years of the area’s history, from the time our ancestors arrived until the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago.

Palaeolithic cave floor

web Cave Floor (c) Museums WorcestershireThis section of a cave floor from Worcester City’s collection was excavated in the 1860s, most likely, in the town of Les Eyzies in the French Dordogne. It belongs to a cave which was occupied during the Upper Palaeolithic, between 17,000 to 12,000 years ago.

Henry Christy, an English banker and ethnologist and Édouard Lartet, a French palaeontologist began working in a cave called Grotte des Eyzies in 1863 at a time of enormous change in the study of early man.

Evidence had been mounting throughout the eighteenth century that the Earth was incredibly old, much older than the 6,000 years that Bishop Ussher had calculated from his bible studies. By the 1840s, scientists working in the Alps had come to realise that rock and gravel deposits had not been laid down by Noah’s great flood but instead by glaciers and icecaps which covered much of Europe and which we now call Ice Ages.

At the time the period was simply called the reindeer age, and the men and women who lived alongside them, the reindeer hunters. Reindeer bones, usually associated with cold climates, were being found on excavations across Southern Europe, including the one that our cave floor was removed from.

The tools that Christy and Lartet found in the Dordogne and specimens of cave floor were sent to museums all over the world, and this object is currently being worked on as part of a review into Worcester City Museum’s Pleistocene collection.

Lartet and Christy went on to make discoveries that were ground breaking; the bones and tusks of Ice Age mammals, decorated by man with images of the animals themselves, proving that early man and these Ice Age animals did indeed once live side by side and in March 1868, the discovery of five Cro-Magnon skeletons, now recognised as the earliest known race of modern humans.