The remains of five Ice Age steppe mammoths have been unearthed at a quarry near Swindon, where archaeologists have also excavated stone tools made by Neanderthals. The find has been dubbed the ‘biggest mammoth discovery for a generation’, and the bones and tools, thought to be c.210,000-220,000 years old, have raised questions about Neanderthal behaviour and hunting practices.
Archaeologists from DigVentures began investigations at the site in 2019 after amateur fossil-hunters Sally and Neville Hollingsworth found a Neanderthal hand axe close to a mammoth tusk. Using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) analysis, the team established secure dates for the layers in which they were working, and returning to the site in 2021, their excavations brought further megafauna remains to light, including tusks, teeth, leg bones, and vertebrae, as well as smaller tools (flint scrapers – used to clean fresh animal hides) and tool-making debris.
Some tools were found within just c.20-30cm of the mammoth bones, but the site’s location in a prehistoric river channel initially made the relationship between the discoveries difficult to determine. ‘This is a palaeo-river channel, so quite possibly they could have rolled in from very different time periods, separated by thousands of years, and be completely unrelated,’ said Brendon Wilkins, Projects Director at DigVentures.
‘[But] in our second season, we established beyond doubt that this is a primary Palaeolithic site with close association between stone tools and megafauna,’ Brendon said. The site dates to the MIS 7 interglacial period, he explained, when Britain was still part of the continental European landmass. ‘We’re in a “Russian steppe”-like landscape,’ he said, adding that the waterlogged nature of the area meant that the artefacts had survived in an excellent state of preservation, despite their age.
The dating evidence has added clarity, but interpretation continues, with the team exploring the nature of the mammoths’ demise. ‘We’ve got two adults, two juveniles, and an infant, all in the same area,’ said Lisa Westcott Wilkins, DigVentures’ Managing Director. ‘Normally when you see that kind of a jumble you’d think it’s been washed down the river, but this is a primary site. They are lying basically where they fell. Were they hunted or deliberately herded, or simply trapped in the mud of the riverbank and then Neanderthals just took advantage of that and someone killed and scavenged them? We don’t really know yet,’ she said.
Brendon did share one working hypothesis, however: ‘What’s interesting about this site is that there is a cliff edge very close to the palaeoriver channel. So one of the very early hypotheses is that the mammoths were driven over this and ended up in the river channel that way. But this is so early in our project that we’re not really able to say anything with any firm conclusions.’ Some of the bones do appear to bear cut marks, however, which could be traces of butchery and require specialist analysis.
The excavations were funded by Historic England, and further supported by Hills Group and Dr Keith Wilkinson of ARCA (an archaeological consultancy) at the University of Winchester. The discoveries have been explored in a BBC documentary with David Attenborough, Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard, available now via BBC iPlayer.