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Elephants lived in Kent before ice age wiped them out


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Because of travel restrictions these days, if you want to see elephants you will have to pay a visit to a zoo.

But turn back the clock more than 400,000 years and the largest mammals on Earth were roaming free across the county.

A family of elephants at Howletts park. Picture: Matt Bristow
A family of elephants at Howletts park. Picture: Matt Bristow

In the last century, evidence of the mighty beasts being at home in the Garden of England was unearthed on several occasions.

The straight-tusked elephant - with its particularly spiky tusks - wandered across the UK heading to warmer climes when temperatures plummeted, and returning northbound when weather improved.

Known as the giant of the Ice Age, its habitat spanned from Britain in the west to central Asia in the east.

After a particularly cold spell, the UK saw the last of the species about 120,000 years ago, although they lingered on in parts of Europe for tens of thousands of years later until humans became established.

Remains of the little-known Chatham Elephant or Upnor Elephant - dating back to when Neanderthals inhabitated the land - were found on a site near the River Medway in August 1913.

Bones unearthed at the Upnor dig in 1916. Picture courtesy of Rochester Guildhall Museum
Bones unearthed at the Upnor dig in 1916. Picture courtesy of Rochester Guildhall Museum

Remarkably, Sydney Turner, of Luton Road, Chatham, stumbled on the bones which were on land owned by the Royal School of Military Engineering.

It later emerged the remains had first been unearthed two years previously during the construction of practice trenches by Sappers who came across many large bones, some of which were destroyed, including a large tusk.

Turner was searching for stone tools and implements, having obtained permission from the military authorities.

He later wrote: “Whilst rambling round that Sunday morning, it came on to rain very heavily and I took shelter in a disused trench in the undergrowth.

"Whilst taking observations in my shelter, I saw where some massive bones had been cut through, also part of what appeared to be a large tusk having been cut through...I managed to disinter one bone and carried it home.”

Sidney Turner with another find in 1932. Picture courtesy of Rochester Guildhall Museum
Sidney Turner with another find in 1932. Picture courtesy of Rochester Guildhall Museum

Turner sent the bone to London's Natural History Museum where it was identified as a carpal bone of a giant elephant.

The museum asked whether there were more bones and could he receive a small deputation to view them.

A few Saturdays later, he escorted Dr Charles Andrews, Professor MacKenny Hughes and Sir Hercules Read to the site.

It became clear a considerable portion of a huge elephant remained buried in the clay.

But wet weather hindered the work which was not resumed until 1915 when a full excavation carefully removed all the remaining parts of the skeleton which were in an extremely fragile condition.

Elephant bones which were excavated in Upnor in 1916. Picture courtesy of Rochester Guildhall Museum
Elephant bones which were excavated in Upnor in 1916. Picture courtesy of Rochester Guildhall Museum

It took the next 12 years to clean the bones which had been covered in plaster of Paris to harden them and to mount them as a complete skeleton, replacing any missing parts.

From the skull, only the molar teeth, one tusk and part of the lower jaw were capable of preservation.

In 1927, the elephant was finally placed on public view at the museum.

The skeleton - "probably the largest yet discovered in Britain", according to a 1915 report - was a male with an estimated height at the shoulder of about four metres, originally weighing round 10 tonnes

The Lower Medway region was one area where such fragmentary fossil elephant remains - including examples of the straight-tusked elephants - were found.

Sydney Turner with unearthed elephant bones taken in 1917. Picture courtesy of Rochester Guildhall Museum
Sydney Turner with unearthed elephant bones taken in 1917. Picture courtesy of Rochester Guildhall Museum

Some were uncovered during the construction of new docks at Chatham Dockyard around 1860, mostly on land largely reclaimed from the river.

During work to underpin one of the towers of Upnor Castle around 1900, the remains of a considerable elephant were found which, because of its size, suggested could also be a straight-tusked elephant. The unearthed tusk was perfectly preserved and measured nine feet.

Workmen digging the large chalk pit at Twydall, near Gillingham, also reported finding large elephant bones near the northern entrance to the site.

It may be hard to imagine, but homes along the Thames Estuary were on land where huge mammoth-sized elephants freely wandered alongside hyenas and cave lions before several ice ages swept the globe.

Between 1997 and 2004, a series of excavations were undertaken in advance of the construction of the Ebbsfleet International Station high-speed rail link.

The Swanscombe Skull was found at Barnfield Pit outside the town. Picture: Natural History Museum
The Swanscombe Skull was found at Barnfield Pit outside the town. Picture: Natural History Museum

The digs were led by Dr Francis Wenban-Smith, a research professor of archaeology at the University of Southampton, near what became known as the Swanscombe Skull site.

Together they safely removed a 400,000-year-old tusk from a building site near Swan Valley Community School, Southfleet Road, now Ebbsfleet Academy.

The mammoth find was 1.5 metres long and belonged to an extinct species of straight-tusked elephants, capable of raising their chins on the back of their African Savannah equivalents today.

Dubbed the Ebbsfleet Elephant, its skeleton had been preserved in the muddy sediment near what was the edge of a small lake.

Evidence was also found of its butchery in the form of flint tools discarded nearby.

Another angle showing the Swanscombe Skull. Picture: Natural History Museum
Another angle showing the Swanscombe Skull. Picture: Natural History Museum

The remains of other animals which long departed these shores were also found, including ancient auroch bulls, two types of rhinoceros and several deer descendants.

As a result of these finds, the area has been designated as a site of special scientific interest and it is an offence to dig on the grounds with a fine of up to £20,000.

The Swanscombe skull is now also located at the Natural History Museum.

Recently, when community group Arches Local in Chatham decided to use a design of the elephant to depict the strength and power of residents as part of the refurbishment of Luton Arches, staff at a nearby school grasped the opportunity to get involved.

Pupils at Luton primary conducted research into the Chatham Elephant and designed their own creatures to inspire artist David Frankum for a mural.

Pupils put finishing touches to their model elephant
Pupils put finishing touches to their model elephant
Chatham MP Tracey Crouch with Luton Primary School pupils
Chatham MP Tracey Crouch with Luton Primary School pupils

Children embarked on elephant-themed artwork based on different artists, including Matisse, and created 3D structures led by a London-based art group.

Assistant head teacher Emma Courtney is keen to get the school an Artsmark accreditation which recognises its commitment to arts and culture.

She said: "It's really important students leave our school with the cultural capital they need to thrive in the world.

"We want them to be able to attend exhibitions, visit museums and watch performances with a deeper appreciation of art, culture and music.

"We also want our students to realise they can make a career out of being artistic and creative and that is why we have reached out to local and London-based artists to teach this to our students."

Read more: All the latest news from Medway

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