Mammoth discovery to be displayed at Swindon's Festival of Tomorrow

By Barrie Hudson - 26 January 2022

  • One of the scientific team at work (Picture: DigVentures)

    One of the scientific team at work (Picture: DigVentures)

Swindon Link's Barrie Hudson and Jamie Hill visited the quarry site where the mammoth remains were discovered and share further details.

Remains are painstakingly freed from the surrounding rock (Picture: DigVentures)

When somebody asks how it feels to find relics dating back to the era of the mammoths, Sally Hollingworth offers a Neanderthal hand axe crafted more than 200 millennia before the Christian era, still sharp and as comfortable in a 21st century hand as it was in that of its creator.

Smiling at the questioner's inevitable thrilled astonishment, she says simply: "That's how it feels."

It was in 2016 that Sally and her husband, Dr Neville Hollingworth, were searching - with permission - in the ancient silt and gravel of a quarry operated by Swindon firm Hills Group near Latton for Jurassic fossils such as ammonites.

What they found is credited as one of the most significant British archaological discoveries in decades. The site eventually yielded the remains of five Steppe mammoths, ancestors of what we know as woolly mammoths, and a flint hand axe.

Their discovery was the basis for BBC documentary Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard.

It will also be a major attraction at Swindon's Festival of Tomorrow.

Neither Sally nor Neville is a palaeontologist by profession - she works for Hills and he works for the Science and Technology Facilities Council - but both are experts in the field.

Neville explained that at the time when the mammoths met their end, whose cause cannot be pinpointed for certain, the landscape was very different, with a land bridge covering much of what is now the North Sea.

"That was an open grassy plain, with rivers and things like that," he said. "That is still not so far beneath the sea surface now."

Sally Hollingworth said: "In autumn of 2016 we went in with permission looking for Jurassic fossils - so, ammonites [shelled early relatives of modern cephalopods such as octopi] of 167 million years.

"The corner of the quarry had just been excavated, which exposed the lower part of the gravel, and we saw a wood-like structure."

Realising that the object didn't seem to 'fit' in the area, the couple invesigated further - and unearthed the first find of the trove, the upper front leg bone of a mammoth.

The ground eventually yielded a collection of other bones, together with teeth, a tusk, the hand axe and even one of the far older ammonites the Hollingworths had originally searched for.

Neville explained that at the time when the Steppe mammoths died, the climate was changing from temperate to cold and the creatures were evolving toward the larger mammoths we are more familiar with.

Hills Group is delighted to be at the centre of such a remarkable discovery.

Chief executive Michael Hill said: "It's amazing, really, and fantastic. I don't suppose we realised the significance of it for quite a while.

"It's a fantastic thing to be involved with and to have enabled, really."

He added that, just as the firm was committed to preserving the biodiversity of the future by restoring its sites after use, it was glad to have a role in exploring the biodiversity of the past.

"In this particular case it's proved quite spectacular!"

Group Director - Quarry Products Peter Andrew said: "This find is absolutely amazing - it's attracted world interest. We're particularly proud of being involved, and having David Attenborough involved has taken it to another level.

"A big part of what we do is the restoration of our quarries - you see the water park with the lakes, the biodiversity and the wetland habitat - and the way we look at it is that we're exposing the biodiversity of the past while creating the biodiversity of the future."

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