A new Ipswich Museum icon? Locally recovered mammoth skeleton to greet visitors in new gallery

7 June 2024

By Dr Simon J. Jackson, Collections and Learning Curator (Natural Sciences)

Well, I’m sure you’re all familiar with our Woolly Mammoth model ‘Wool-I-am’, and are looking forward to seeing it going back on display soon (when the Museum is scheduled to reopen in 2025). But, what many of you might not know is that we have exciting plans to redisplay another type of mammoth in one of our new galleries…

Those of you who were perhaps more regular visitors to the Museum may have come across its bone remains which were tucked into a corner display case to the left of the mammoth model.

The Maidenhall Mammoth skeletal remains previously on display at Ipswich Museum until October 2022

This small group of bones, previously on display, belongs to a larger collection making up some 20% of a skeleton of a Steppe Mammoth Mammuthus trogontherii. Not a Woolly Mammoth but a Steppe Mammoth! Some of you may know that there were actually several species of mammoth1 that have lived and, undoubtedly, the most familiar species is the iconic Woolly Mammoth. We know a huge amount about this particular species thanks to abundant skeletal remains and also the exceptional preservation of specimens in permafrost – for example, the mammoth calf Lyuba. The less familiar Steppe Mammoth, which evolved before, was much larger (around 4m high at the shoulder) than the Woolly Mammoth (which was a maximum of 3.5m high at the shoulder and comparable in size to modern African elephants).

Artistic reconstruction of a Steppe Mammoth Mammuthus trogontherii by Dr Katharine Scott (University of Oxford).

Our mammoth was found thanks to the investigative efforts of Bob Markham, our previous geology curator at Ipswich Museum, in 1975. It was discovered at Maidenhall, in the south of Ipswich, at a site which now makes up the grounds of Stoke High School (in deep trenches dug for sewage pipes). Over 1975 and 1976 about 20% of the skeleton was then recovered by archaeologist John Wymer from University of Chicago excavating the material with permission from Suffolk County Council. Our Conservation Officer Robert Entwistle repaired many of the bones, and Curator of Geology Bob Markham put a selection of the best material on display.

The specimen belongs to a much richer, internationally important2 collection of animals dating to 200,000 years ago – during one of the major warmer and wetter (interglacial) periods of the ice age (very briefly, the ice age which began 2.6 million years ago was not one long cold period but was interrupted by shorter, warmer interglacials). Thanks to work from geological organisation, GeoSuffolk helping me to further document and study the finds in 2022, we have a better idea of the richness of animals from this Maidenhall excavation and the completeness of the Maidenhall mammoth specimen. Many species are known from this excavation: perhaps as red deer, horses and ancient “cattle” gathered at waterholes, our Steppe Mammoth roamed majestically across what is now the southern part of Ipswich. Humans were present in small numbers here, judging from the small amount of stone tool evidence, perhaps used by a visiting hunting group. They may have kept an anxious vigilance for prowling predators including wolves and lions3. Smaller animals would have included freshwater tortoise, rodents and fish.

But back to the mammoth: its significance is attracting national and international research interest.

Research from leading mammoth experts Professor Adrian Lister (Natural History Museum London) and Dr Katharine Scott (University of Oxford)4 has helped us to understand the significance of the specimen in more detail. Whilst the majority of Steppe Mammoth remains tend to be rather isolated, more complete specimens, particularly when associated parts might be found together, are very rare indeed. From this particular period, 200,000 years ago, our specimen is actually 1 of only 4 such skeletons and therefore provides an invaluable insight into understanding the species at this time4.

What is really surprising is its small size. Professor Lister and Dr Scott have estimated the size of the specimen at about 2.2m high at the shoulder. Bearing in mind this species was some whopping 4m high at the shoulder 700,000 years ago (as demonstrated by the well-known West Runton, Norfolk specimen), this is an incredible size reduction over this half million years (Figure 3). Whilst there are many other small Steppe Mammoth fossils known from this period, 200,000 years ago, including numerous specimens from Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire5, our specimen is so far the smallest known individual of this species4.

Illustration showing size of British Pleistocene mammoths estimated from fossil remains. Minimum and maximum sizes for the Steppe Mammoth in the Early Pleistocene (2.6 million-780,000 years ago) and Middle Pleistocene (MIS 7) interglacial 200,000 years ago, and sizes shown for the Woolly Mammoth in the Late Pleistocene (125,000-12,000 years ago). Note the considerable size decrease between Early Pleistocene and Middle Pleistocene Steppe Mammoths. Reproduced with kind permission from Scott, K. and Buckingham, C., 2021. Mammoths and Neanderthals in the Thames Valley. Archaeopress Publishing

Why this species became so small is a mystery. However, it seems that at the end of this interglacial 200,000 years ago, it became extinct – perhaps due to environmental factors and was replaced in Britain by the better-known Woolly Mammoth.

Future research from the specimen may help us to understand the evolution of the species more and how it fits with the Woolly Mammoth – we are currently searching for the presence of ancient DNA – conducted by the Centre of Palaeogenetics (a joint partnership between Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History) – in one of the specimen’s teeth, which, if found, would be the oldest mammoth DNA known from Europe6.

Such a significant specimen certainly earns its place in our new Worlds gallery, due to open at Ipswich Museum in 2025. The gallery will celebrate Suffolk’s rich geology– which has the best British record of the ice age2 and earliest human prehistory. It will take the visitor on a journey back in time to the Cretaceous Chalk more than 66 million years ago before exploring older geological evidence seen elsewhere in Britain. The new display will hopefully help us to see the Maidenhall mammoth specimen in its entirety and to visualise its size, showing it alongside other contextual finds from the site.

Our Maidenhall mammoth reminds us that this fantastic fossil evidence lies right beneath our feet here, in parts of Ipswich. It is indeed part of our rich local (and national!) heritage that we should celebrate and be proud of. This Ipswich mammoth will be “back” again…

Collections and Learning Curator Dr Simon J. Jackson with Maidenhall mammoth right mandible, at Ipswich Museum before closure in 2022.
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