Experts who unearthed a 200,000-year-old mammoth graveyard say it is “one of Britain’s biggest Ice Age discoveries in recent years”.
Archaeologists found the remains of five animals, including two adults, two juveniles, and an infant, at a quarry near Swindon.
The dig began after two keen fossil hunters spotted a Neanderthal hand axe.
Officials from archaelogical organisation DigVentures said that what they went on to find was “exceptional”.
The remains belong to a species of Steppe mammoth, an ancestor of the Woolly mammoth.
Close to the mammoth remains, the team also found a number of stone tools made by Neanderthals.
DigVentures began the excavations after being alerted to the site by Sally and Neville Hollingworth, from Swindon.
Ms Hollingworth said: “We were originally hoping to find marine fossils, and finding something so significant instead has been a real thrill.”
“Even better than that is seeing it turn into a major archaeological excavation.”
“We couldn’t be more pleased that something we’ve discovered will be learned from and enjoyed by so many people.”
Lisa Westcott Wilkins from DigVentures said: “Finding mammoth bones is always extraordinary, but finding ones that are so old and well preserved, and in such close proximity to Neanderthal stone tools is exceptional.”
Other discoveries at the site include delicate beetle wings and fragile freshwater snail shells as well as stone tools.
Research is ongoing to understand why so many mammoths were found in one place, and whether they were hunted or scavenged by Neanderthals.
Duncan Wilson, chief Executive of Historic England, said: “This represents one of Britain’s most significant Ice Age discoveries in recent years.”
“The findings have enormous value for understanding the human occupation of Britain, and the delicate environmental evidence recovered will also help us understand it in the context of past climate change.”
With sites from this period rarely so well-preserved, it is thought these new discoveries will help archaeologists, palaeontologists, and palaeoenvironmental scientists address big questions about Neanderthals, mammoths, and the impact of a rapidly changing climate on life in Ice Age Britain.
The discovery will be featured in a new BBC One documentary Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard which will be broadcast on 30 December.
In the late 2010s, a discovery was made by a team of paleontologists monitoring construction in Swindon, a medium-sized town east of London. The mitigation team was known as “DigVentures” excavated about five different Steppe mammoths dating from 210,000-220,000 years old! Steppe mammoths are significantly larger than Wolly mammoths and comparable to the size of modern African elephants.
One infant, two adults, and two subadults (juvenile) skeletons were identified and collected using Plaster of Paris and burlap “jackets,” a common method of extraction used by paleontologists. These mammoths are very well preserved compared to other recent discoveries.
This preservation quality is likely due to the composition of the matrix the fossils were enclosed. Matrix is simply the clay, sand, dirt, tar, or mud that encases a fossil and it appears that the matrix surrounding this find was a grey clay composition. Freshwater shells and beetle wing fossils were also discovered shedding light on the paleoecology of ancient Britain.
While the site has not yet been confirmed as an official butchering site, neanderthal stone tools and associated material culture were located in close proximity to the mammoth materials. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that this is a potential prehistoric kill site.
Butchering with stone tools leaves telltale marks and signs on bones that can be identified by paleontologists and archaeologists. Fossil preparation and close laboratory analysis will provide the necessary insight to draw important conclusions regarding the story of this site and its relevance to human prehistory.