NORFOLK Museums Service
Object Handling

West Runton Elephant

Discovery

The story begins on 13 December 1990 when, following a stormy night, local residents Harold and Margaret Hems took a walk on the beach. They found a large bone partly exposed at the bottom of the cliffs, and contacted Norfolk Museums Service. It was identified as a pelvic bone of a large elephant. Just over a year later after another storm several more huge bones were discovered, some by local fossil collector Rob Sinclair. This was obviously a find of major significance, and in January 1992 the first exploratory excavation took place. Once the results of this had been evaluated, a second major 3 month excavation followed in 1995.

Background

The 'West Runton Freshwater Bed' is a five-foot thick layer of organic-rich mud deposited by a medium sized river about six hundred thousand (600,000) to seven hundred thousand years ago, long before the beginning of the Ice Ages. This deposit, just east of West Runton on the North Norfolk coast, is full of all sorts of fossils. These range from thousands of small snail shells, twigs and small mammal bones, through medium sized deer, horse and rhino bones to the huge bones of the elephants, which roamed our country in herds back then. There have been many species of elephant living in England over the last few millions of years. The West Runton Elephant, living here 6-700,000 years ago, is of the species Mammuthus trogontherii.

An illustration of the West Runton Elephant by Sam BrownThis was the largest species of elephant that has ever lived, and the largest animal ever to have lived on land except for the very biggest dinosaurs. Standing four metres high at its shoulder, it would have weighed about ten tons – twice the weight of any male African elephant you would find today. It is the largest elephant skeleton ever found and is the oldest elephant skeleton to have been found in the UK (some individual bones or teeth from elsewhere are older, but none make even a partial skeleton). The West Runton Elephant skeleton is also the best of this species ever to have been found. Previously the best were two partial skeletons, one in Germany and the other in Russia, both only about 10-15% complete. The West Runton Elephant skeleton is about 85% complete.

Stormy day at West RuntonBecause the West Runton Freshwater Bed is the “Type Site” for the Cromerian Interglacial it is the benchmark that all other countries in Europe use when studying their own deposits of a similar age. That is why when the first bones of the elephant were discovered after storms in the winters of 1990 and 1992, the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service applied for funding to excavate the site more fully to unearth the rest of what was obviously a very important find. It was clearly also a very good chance to study other aspects of the site in more detail. To find such a complete skeleton during the 1995 excavation, so well preserved and with so many other bones, was a very welcome surprise.

Read more