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Posts Tagged ‘Blue Peter’

Shropshire’s Mammoth – Week 31 of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

The story of the discovery of the Condover Mammoth is interesting for many reasons – not least of which because it sheds important light on the way local heritage discoveries happen.

The first is the unexpected nature of the discovery itself. The mammoth bones were discovered in 1986, during the excavation of a sand and gravel quarry at Condover, just south of Shrewsbury. It’s a fair distance from Oswestry, but – like the Stiperstones and Prees Heath – shares our Ice Age landscape and geology. As the climate changed and the glaciers (like the ones which shaped the Stiperstones) melted, rivers of melt water ran away from the disappearing ice sheets. These laid down huge areas of sand, gravel and mud across much of lowland Shropshire. These muddy plains were great environments for grasses, wild flowers and small shrubs (not unlike the plants now growing at Prees Heath, for example) and attracted large herds of animals moving back up into the newly thawed north of Britain. One of the animals attracted by this rich, new grazing land was the mammoth. But these fertile grazing lands held hidden dangers. Large lumps of ice, breaking off from the glacier, became buried in the sand, mud and gravel, and slowly melted – leaving a hole buried under the ground. When something as large as a mammoth stepped on top of where that hole was, the top collapsed, creating a steep-sided pit of wet earth, sand and gravel – an impossible trap for a large animal to get out of. Trapped, these animals died, and their bodies were buried with more mud and sand as the pit was filled in. At Condover, an adult and two young mammoths died this way. Quarrying in the Shropshire plain for sand and gravel was possibly started by the Romans (getting material for their roads), but became big business in the 19th and 20th century, as sand and aggregate were needed in large quantities for building construction. The quarry at Condover is one of several in the area making profitable use of this Ice Age geology! But the point here is that this discovery shows how local industry, geology and history all work together to make discoveries like the Condover mammoth possible. Once again, it demonstrates how local heritage is a network of different influences, events and synchonicities, meaning we get a much better and more complete picture of our local heritage if we try to understand as many aspects of it as possible – including things like economics, soil formation and social history.

The second is the way in which the discovery unfolded. The bones were actually uncovered by the workers at the ARC Western Ltd. quarry: Maurice Baddeley, Gary Ryan and Michael Ryan (all working for R.J. Weaver (Contracts) Ltd. of Burton-on-Trent). Maurice Baddeley put the big bones aside, but thought they were the remains of a large farm animal – a big bull or something – that had died in the quarry. Eve Roberts and her husband Glyn – local Condover residents – were walking their dogs nearby and saw the bones sitting at the edge of the quarry. Talking to Baddeley, Eve didn’t think as he did that the bones were of a farm animal: to her, they looked much bigger. When Eve got home later that morning, she phoned Geoff McCabe, the Shropshire County Museums and Arts officer. He came down within the hour, and identified the remains as probably being those of a prehistoric mammoth. He then made arrangements with ARC Western Ltd, and put in an urgent call to the British Museum for advice. The following week Russell Coope of the University of Birmingham’s Department of Geological Sciences came and positively identified the remains as an Ice Age mammoth. Local television and radio stations then put out a call for local people to help with the excavation. Even Blue Peter came and recorded a programme on-site to help raise public awareness of the importance of the discovery. For the next four days, thirty volunteers – including Eve Roberts – helped Geoff McCabe and the Museum Services staff excavate the remains of the three mammoths. Additional specialists came to help, too: Dr. Adrian Lister of Cambridge University quickly realised that the mammoth skeletons were some of the best preserved in Europe, and a team of twenty students from the University of Birmingham came to identify, clean and preserve the bones in a makeshift laboratory shed donated by the Highways Department. The bones were then sent out to thirteen research laboratories in Britain, plus labs in the USA and even the Soviet Union, for further detailed analysis by experts. They eventually determined that the mammoth remains were about 12,000 years old, making them the “youngest” in Britain – an important piece of information that has significantly changed our understanding of the Ice Age in northern Europe.

What does this tell us? It tells us that local heritage is, truly, a team effort. From the quarry workers who uncovered the mammoth, to Eve Roberts who recognised them as important, to Geoff McCabe who responded so quickly and put the expert wheels in motion, to the Soviet scientists who contributed their specialist knowledge – local heritage is a collaborative effort, bringing in engagement, experience and expertise from a wide range of people. There are no “lone wolves” in local heritage research – no one who can know everything or do everything. Local heritage discoveries are made possible when a community of like-minded people work cooperatively. And this means that we are all capable of contributing to heritage discoveries big and small, regardless of whether we’re working in a lab in Siberia or walking our dog through a field in Shropshire. The important thing is to be interested and get involved.

Who knows? Maybe the next time you’re taking the dog for a walk around Old Oswestry you’ll stumble across something as magnificent as the Condover Mammoth!

Don’t forget: you can actually see the mammoth skeleton on display at the Shropshire Hills Discover Centre near Craven Arms!

The Oswestry Heritage Comics are a year-long series of weekly newspaper comic strips about the archaeology, history and heritage of the area around Oswestry, Shropshire in the UK. The comics are published in the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer every Tuesday, and on Facebook. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
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