Cabinet of Curiosities

Frozen in Time

A catch of a different sort today as we go back to more chilly climes with a selection of mammal remains retrieved from the bed of the North Sea. At various periods during the Ice Age, sea level fell by up to 360 feet with massive quantities of water frozen as ice. As a consequence of this, the North Sea was an extensive area of dry land and home to a host of now extinct mammals including woolly mammoth, cave hyaena, bison, Irish Giant Deer, reindeer and aurochs. As modern trawlers drag the seabed, their nets pick up fossil remains of these same animals which are then brought to the surface when the haul is landed. Mostly somewhere between 110,000 to 12,000 years in age, they offer a fascinating insight into prehistoric Europe. The specimens illustrated here were recovered from the bed of the North Sea.

Mammoth humerus

To most people the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) is the quintessential animal of the Ice Age. Standing up to 11 feet high at the shoulder, an adult weighed around 8 tons. It possessed some special adaptations to deal with the arctic conditions. Its coat consisted of outer coarse hairs, which could be up to 3 feet long, and an under-layer of short dense hairs comparable to a woolly blanket. In addition, a 3-4 inch subcutaneous layer of fat helped to insulate the animal. Life expectancy was around 60 years. The fragment of the end section of a mammoth’s humerus will give you an impression of the size of the animal.

Ancient carnivore teeth marks

Taphonomy is the specialist study within osteoarchaeology or bone analysis which endeavours to ascertain what happened to the carcass of an animal following death. A dead mammoth would have quickly gained the attention of predators. If you look closely at the surface of the humerus, particularly towards the top, from the mid-section across to the right-hand side, you will notice short channel-like marks gouged into the surface. These were inflicted by a large carnivore, possibly a cave hyaena, scavenging the carcass of the dead mammoth tens of thousands of years ago and are in effect a ‘frozen’ moment, no pun intended, in a long since vanished world.

The first vertebra in the spine of a mammal is called the atlas. The specimen here is from a mammoth. The opening in the centre is the conduit for the spinal cord.

Mammoth atlas
Aurochs metacarpal (foot bone)

In December 1994 one of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries in Europe was made in a limestone cave in the Ardéche of south-east France. Described later as a ‘Noah’s Ark’ of Ice Age animals, the 3 speleologists had found a series of caverns adorned with a remarkable collection of over 3oo paintings. By the flickering light of torches, prehistoric artists around 30,000 years ago had adorned the walls of the deep recesses of the cave with images of the animals they knew and hunted. These included the aurochs (Bos primigenius), the wild species of cattle in prehistoric Europe. Standing 6 feet high at the shoulder, with 3 feet long forward pointing horns and weighing over a ton, it was a formidable creature.The metacarpal is from the lower front leg of an aurochs and  give you a sense of the sheer size of this bovine.

Irish Giant Deer thoracic vertebra

A visit to the Ice Age would not be complete without mention of an animal very much associated with Ireland, namely the Irish Giant Deer (Megaloceras giganteus). A magnificent animal, males stood 6 feet at the shoulder and weighed up to 110 stone. The antlers can measure 12 feet along the curvature and these were shed each year. In Ireland they roamed grasslands in the immediate post-Glacial landscape but a temporary return to severe arctic conditions around 10,500 years ago witnessed the extinction of this remarkable animal. The thoracic or chest vertebra has an additional unusual feature. If you look closely at the base of the spinous process, the long upright piece, you will notice that an oyster took up residence in the vertebral foramen, the opening down through which the spinal cord once passed.



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