Lost Landscapes of Worcestershire

Explore our Ice Age story

Reconstructing Lost Landscapes

200,000 years ago mammoths walked across south Worcestershire in a landscape & climate similar to today’s. Buttercups, daisies and occasional oak trees grew. How do we know this?

We start with the evidence. Scientific dating techniques and geological deposit mapping help us to work out how the hills and rivers changed over time – this gives us the basic lie of the land. The bones of large mammals can then tell us which species inhabited the landscape, which also gives us a general idea about the vegetation that might have grown. Below is a reconstruction of Neanderthals hunting reindeer at Kemerton, just over 40,000 years ago. In order to produce this image, illustrator Steve Rigby drew on the discovery of hundreds of bone fragments and stone tools found around Bredon Hill.

Ice Age hunters

Neanderthal hunters at Kemerton, Bredon Hill (by WAAS illustrator)

Geological deposits and animal bones are valuable clues, but how can we find out exactly what type of vegetation and plants grew? Microscopic plant remains, especially pollen, and the remains of tiny creatures can provide astonishing details about the immediate area: the abundance or absence of trees and whether bodies of water were still or fast-flowing. Unlike larger animals, many species of insects and snails are adapted to live in very niche, specific habitats. Identifying which of these tiny species were present gives us a much more precise picture of the immediate environment.

80,000 years ago, the lakes at Upton Warren, Wychbold, were still, salty pools. Woolly mammoth, reindeer, and bison came to drink. Silted up and buried for tens of thousands of years, the site was uncovered by gravel extraction in the 1950s. The miniscule remains of insects and fish from Upton Warren were discovered thanks to painstaking sieving of 600kg of mud. Amazingly, 80,000 years after they were buried, the insects still shone as they emerged from the mud. Researchers carefully noted the colours before the specimens dried and faded.

Four insect remains - black & white drawing

80,000 year old insect remains from Upton Warren sailing lake and nature reserve

Similar analysis of the sediments around Millicent, a young adult mammoth discovered during the construction of Strensham Services on the M5, revealed cold-adverse mollusc species. Mammoths tend to conjure up images of snowy barren tundra, but as these temperate snails showed, large mammals can live in a relatively broad range of environments – they are not the most helpful indicators for reconstructing lost landscapes.

Alongside Millicent and the cold-adverse molluscs were pollen grains trapped within the silty sediments. Plants produce pollen of different shapes and sizes, making it possible to identify which species they come from. Due to the small, dense nature of pollen grains and their hard surface, pollen can survive in the ground for thousands of years. Careful analysis of the sediments found at Strensham Services revealed evidence of an open and relatively dry grassland with a few shrubs and trees: 200,000 years before the motorway was built, daises, pinks, buttercups, pine, birch and oak grew. Living in this open grassland and temperate climate, similar to today, were mammoths and red deer.

Mammoths at Strensham 200,000 years ago ©Pighill Reconstruction – click and drag to pan around the landscape

In addition to the topography, flora and fauna of lost landscapes we can add another layer – human activity. As organic materials soon rot away, stone tools are our primary evidence for the presence or absence of human activity. Stone tools also offer an insight into the technology our early ancestors used and activities they undertook: what type of animals did they hunt and how? Combine these strands of evidence together and Worcestershire’s long-lost landscapes start to come to life.

Blog originally posted on Explore the Past.

Discovering Ice Age Worcestershire

The 19th century was not only a time of radical new concepts, but an era of discovery. We owe a lot to these early discoveries for proving there is still evidence out there of Worcestershire’s long lost landscapes:

As earth’s deep history and the evolution of species began to be debated and slowly accepted, researchers within Worcestershire started to investigate the particular history and geology of this region.

Some of the first to do so were Hugh and Catherine Strickland. During the mid-19th century, they discovered the remains of ancient animals, including mammoth, hippopotamus and elephant, around the River Avon and further afield. Inspired in part by the Stricklands, leading geologist Rev. William Symonds conducted fossil-hunting expeditions along the River Severn, wrote a guide for young naturalists and set up Malvern Naturalists’ Field Club and the Woolhope Club of Herefordshire.

Many of the earliest stone tools to arrive in Worcester’s collections came from key sites in France that were excavated in the mid-19th century: St Acheul, Le Moustier, and Aurignac. These tools were found in cave deposits containing the remains of extinct creatures, proving that humans had lived alongside Ice Age animals.

Despite earlier discoveries of ancient animals, by the Stricklands and others, it was not until the early 20th century that the first traces of Ice Age humans in Worcestershire were identified. In January 1915, news of the first Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) artefacts discovered in Worcestershire was announced in a lecture by W. H. Edwards.

Display board of six worked flints
Contemporary image of worked flints found by William Bruton, displayed on W.H. Edwards’ handwritten board

They were found – not by professors or learned gentlemen – but by a tailor from St Johns, Worcester, called William Bruton. Many of his finds were made close to his home in St Johns, in the soils of the extensive plant nurseries. Others came from further afield:  Bruton recognised the significance of Bredon Hill to early humans, and made a number of discoveries around Conderton.

Continue reading on Explore the Past.

Ideas That Changed the World

Earth is 4.5 billion years old. We, Homo sapiens, have been around for at least 200,000 years. But how do we know this? Our blog below explores how earth’s deep history began to be contemplated and explored:

The turn of the nineteenth century was an important point in our recognition and understanding of the Ice Age. The whole of the earth’s history had been understood to fit within the few thousand years described in the bible, but this was about to change.

Eighteenth century scientists wrestled with problematic discoveries of elephant-like bones found far from the tropical areas they usually live in. It was thought they’d been washed into Britain by a great flood thousands of years before. A discovery in Siberia would change everything. A hunting party discovered the frozen body of a mammoth that had died thousands of years before. It was brought back for display in St Petersburg and, importantly, it proved that the mammoth was a different species to the elephant and had lived in a much colder climate.

Two mammoths in Worcestershire

Antiquarians began considering the use and age of stone objects we now know were tools. At the end of the 18th century John Frere of Norfolk wrote that these stones, found 12 feet below the ground alongside the bones of strange animals, must belong to a very remote time ago indeed.

A few years later, an engineer called William Smith began mapping the layers of rock he found in Britain and the fossils found within them. Smith and geologists like him realised that each layer of rock belonged to a different time and provided a record of the plants and animals that lived within that time.

William Smith's geology map

Ideas about the world were changing: the earth was ancient, much more ancient than the few thousand years previously thought. The climate had been far colder and large extinct animals had lived alongside humans who had made strange stone tools that had survived for millennia.

It took the persistent dedication though of a French customers inspector, Jacques Boucher de Perthes, for the antiquity of humanity to finally be accepted within academic circles. Working in gravel quarries along the Somme river, Boucher de Perthes began collecting stone tools from geological layers containing extinct animal remains.  His 1841 publication was not well received, but a few were prepared to contemplate his discoveries and travelled to see the gravel pits first-hand.

In 1859, a flint handaxe embedded in an ancient gravel deposit was also observed and recorded by two English academics. Before the month was out, the Royal Society in London had been informed and views began to change: research slowly turned from proving the concept of a ‘prehistory’ to discovering more about it.

Originally posted on Explore the Past.

Conserving the Clifton Mammoth Tusk

You can see this incredible discovery, and a specially commissioned replica, at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum and the County Museum at Hartlebury.

Research Worcestershire

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…

View original post 39 more words

Discovering Lost Landscapes – William Smith Geology Map

In 1815 William Smith produced ‘the map that changed the world’ – the first geological map of Great Britain. Years of surveying were behind the incredible detail of this pioneering map, as well as Smith’s theory of stratigraphy that matched areas of non-continuous geology through fossils assemblages. Emma Hancox, Sam Wilson and John France explain more:

This summer, as part of the Lost Landscapes project, we are exhibiting a copy of the first geology map of Great Britain, produced in 1815 by William Smith. A private donor is kindly lending us his copy of this rare map for the Ice Age exhibition in the Art Gallery and Museum. We also have a giant print of the map in The Hive as part of the Origins of Us exhibition.

Known as “the map that changed the world”, the giant print forms the centre-piece of Origins of Us. This exhibition explores how we came to understand our human story.  Set against the back drop of Darwin’s Origin of Species and the emergence of our understanding of the antiquity of the earth, the story of how 19th century scholars and collectors came to revelations about the age of the rocks, fossils and human-made artefacts around us, which spoke of distant aeons, is the story of how we understand what it means to be human. […]

Excerpt of Smith's 1815 geology map
A section of William Smith’s map showing Worcestershire/Warwickshire

Read more at Discovering Lost Landscapes – The William Smith Geology Map