Creswell Crags is located on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border and is comprised of a large gorge a third of a mile long with steep cliffs on either side. The gorge contains around 23 caves of various sizes which during the Pleistocene were used as shelters by many mammals, including early humans, during harsh winter storms. Unfortunately many animals met their untimely ends in these caves either from the cold or by ending up on the dinner plate of human hunters or cave hyaenas (Crocuta crocuta spelaea). This was the story of Creswell for much of the Ice Age and resulted in a lot of skeletons accumulating in these caves. A few bones from these caves have been dated to around 23,000-59,000 years before present, a time when many large mammals returned to Britain following the previous glacial maximum. Creswell Crags therefore represents a key snapshot in the continuous movement of animals with the constant expanding and retreating ice sheets.
The treasure trove of Ice Age fossils from Creswell was first discovered in the 1870s which led to numerous cave excavations shortly after. Of course, being Victorian palaeontologists, these excavators used dynamite, pickaxes, sledgehammers…you get the drift: not very specimen-friendly techniques. The excavations on the whole were rushed with little appreciation for correct species identifications and how individual bones may have fitted together. Many bones found during these original excavations ended up being donated or sold to the NOTNH (amongst many other institutions) where they have remained largely unstudied. That is where I came in as a volunteer; to help improve documentation of the NOTNH Creswell Crags collection to see how many different animals were present and in what proportions. I was able to spend many hours in the ‘Geology Tower’ (not a joke, a REAL tower!) examining and photographing many cool fossils, if you’ll excuse the pun. In a few cases I was even able to classify or correct some original specimen identifications which really made me feel like a professional palaeontologist.
There are 466 individual fossils from Creswell Crags held at the NOTNH. However, only 283 of these were reliably identified down to genus level, often because of their fragmentary nature. (This is typical of fossils from cave sites, as bones are broken up by being trampled on, or by being munched on.) From the identified fossils 17 different animals make up the collection in varying abundances. Nearly half of the identified collection consisted of woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis; 25.5%) and wild horse (Equus ferus; 22%) alone. Many woolly rhino bones were of their pretty hefty limbs, whereas the most commonly observed type of horse specimen was their teeth with insanely large crowns and roots, which they would have used to grind up tough grass. Fossils of other grazing mammals in the collection include the teeth and ankle bones of giant Irish elk Megaloceros giganteus, although sadly none of the infamously huge antlers were present.
The collection also contained several different carnivores, most notably cave hyaenas which make up 13% of the identified specimens. Regular Twilight Beast readers will already know how amazing hyaenas are, and the NOTNH contains several beautiful jaw fragments with huge pre-molars which they used for crushing the bones of their prey. There is also a rather peculiar upper jaw fragment with a tooth protruding in the wrong direction. Was this the result of a genetic abnormality? Weird preservation causing the tooth to warp? Outside opinion from Jane Ford, a PhD student examining Pleistocene UK hyaena distributions at the University of Sheffield believes the tooth is actually from a lower jaw that was shoved into an empty upper jaw socket, presumably by Victorian excavators. These specimens not only depicts the natural history of Ice Age animals, but is also a record of the excavation history of the site. Other carnivores include bears, foxes and even fragments attributed to the genus Canis, but it is unclear whether they belonged to wolves or domestic dogs.
Now I know what you’re thinking. All this talk of Pleistocene megafauna is all well and good, but what about the really exciting small furry critters like voles, lemmings and weasels that were alive at the same time as these giants? Granted, these guys may not excite the imagination in the same way as woolly rhinos or cave hyaenas, but the point is valid all the same. The smallest Creswell Crags mammal found at the NOTNH was the arctic hare (Lepus arcticus), which at up to 7kg in size is not exactly small (the average size of mammals today is 100g). So where are all the small mammals? Well, remember how I said Creswell Crags was originally excavated by Victorian palaeontologists? As well as possessing a certain fondness for dynamite, these guys were also nursing quite large egos. As such, the excavators felt the need for their finds to be as impressive as possible, thus many of their digs were biased towards collecting the iconic Pleistocene megafauna. Later, more thorough excavations in the 1920s did find an abundance of smaller mammals, but these finds ended up in other museums.
During my time volunteering at the NOTNH I was able to write up the results and publish the work in a recent volume of Geological Curator which came out in the middle of December. I was also able to present my work at the Palaeontological Association Annual Meeting in Cardiff in December 2015.
Currently only two Creswell Crags fossils are on display in the main NOTNH galleries: a hyaena lower jaw and a woolly rhino molar. However there are plans to bring more of these fossils to display which will hopefully encourage people visiting the museumto learn more about the Late Pleistocene.
Written by Jordan Bestwick (@JordanBestwick1)
Edited by Ross Barnett (@DeepFried DNA)
If you are interested to know more about the Creswell Crags collection at the NOTNH or would like to see any of the specimens for yourself, enquiries can be directed to Adam Smith (email@example.com) for more information.
Bestwick, J. & Smith, A. S. (2015). ‘Creswell Crags fossil material at Nottingham Natural History Museum, Wollaton Hall, UK’. The Geological Curator, 10: pp.181-192. [Full article]
Charles, R, & Jacobi, R. M. (1994). ‘The Late glacial fauna from the Robin Hood cave, Creswell Crags: a re-assessment’, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 13: pp.1-32. [Full article]
Jacobi, R. M, Higham T. F. G., & Ramsey, C. B. (2006), ‘AMS radiocarbon dating of Middle and Upper Palaeolithic bone in the British Isles: improved reliability using ultrafiltration.’ Journal of Quaternary Science, 21: pp.557-573. [Abstract only]
Mello, J. M. (1875), ‘On some bone-caves in Creswell Crags’, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London. 31: pp.679-691. [Abstract only]
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Mello, J. M. (1877), ‘The bone-caves of Creswell Crags’. -3rd Paper. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London. 33: pp.579-588. [Abstract only]
Smith, A. S. (2015), ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Fossils at the Nottingham Natural History Museum, Wollaton Hall, UK’, The Palaeontological Association Newsletter, 88: pp.35-38.
Turner, N. S. (1993), ‘Report on the Geological Collections of the Natural History Museum, Wollaton Hall, Nottingham.’ Mercian Geologist, 5: pp.49-64.
Turner, N. S. (2000), ‘Catalogue of the type, figured and cited fossils in the Nottingham Natural History Museum, Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, U.K’, The Geological Curator, 7: pp.111-121. [Full article]