Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard

30 December 2021

DigVentures is the archaeological team behind the exciting new BBC One documentary

Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard is an exciting new BBC One documentary exploring Britain’s biggest Ice Age discovery in nearly 20 years. DigVentures is the archaeological team that led the excavations.

When two enthusiastic fossil hunters uncovered an extraordinary cache of mammoth remains in the West Country in 2017, they sparked an unexpected journey of discovery. Originally hoping to find Jurassic marine fossils, they had instead chanced upon the find of a lifetime: mammoth skeletons, and lots of them.

DigVentures was called out to assess the site with evolutionary biologist Prof. Ben Garrod. The team found ribs, tusks, leg bones, teeth, vertebrae, and perhaps most excitingly of all, a stone axe made by a Neanderthal. It was immediately clear that this was no ordinary accumulation of jumbled remains: it is a snapshot of an ancient habitat dating back over 200,000 years, a window into a period of time for which there are very few surviving sites.

Why were there so many mammoths there, and of varying ages when they died? How did they die? Could Neanderthals have killed these Ice Age giants? And would this site be able to unlock new clues into Neanderthal behaviour, mammoth evolution, and even show us a picture of life in Ice Age Britain?

Recognising the national and international significance of this site, DV assembled a team of experts who to help us unpick the complex layers of sediment, and to bring with them the latest scientific techniques to recover even the most fragile pieces of evidence. Understanding the enormous public interest in what we were about to uncover, before we had even broken ground the BBC committed to a documentary and invited Sir David Attenborough to film the discoveris as they happened.

What followed was an incredible collaboration between enthusiasts, documentary-makers, museums, academic institutions, scientists, and experimental archaeologists.

Creating a BBC One documentary makes what is already an exciting discovery even more exciting. Through the filming process, we’ve not only been able to reveal the finds themselves; we’ve been able to make the science, the ideas, and the discussions behind them, accessible to all.

Located in a quarry near Swindon, we used cutting edge science to investigate the site, from laser surveys to OSL dating and sedaDNA.

DigVentures began investigating the site after two passionate fossil-hunters, Sally and Neville Hollingworth, spotted a Neanderthal hand axe along with an impressive number of mammoth remains at a Swindon quarry. Working with Historic England, Dr Keith Wilkinson of ARCA at the University of Winchester, and the site’s landowners Hills Group Quarry Products, DigVentures assembled an expert team to investigate in detail.

Over the course of two summers in 2019 and 2021, we led this fantastic research team on a very special dig to unearth more evidence from the site, including the remains of mammoths, steppe bison, and other Ice Age animals, as well as further evidence of Neanderthal activity.

 

The astounding preservation of the site is part of what makes it Britain’s most significant Ice Age discovery in recent years, with delicate beetle wings and fragile freshwater snail shells being recovered among the more robust remains of stone tools and mammoth bones.

We used LIDaR, aerial 3D and trench-based photogrammetry, boreholing and other mapping techniques to build up an above- and below-ground map profile of the site, and collected crucial environmental and dating evidence from the untouched sediment surrounding the bones. Experts have been consulted, specialists have flown in from across the world to examine the evidence, and one of the world’s best documentary-makers has told the story.

The remains of at least five Ice Age mammoths, including two adults, two juveniles, and one infant, have been discovered, with stone tools made by Neanderthals found close by.

Other Ice Age megafauna, such as Steppe bison and cave bears, have also been discovered, along with such delicate remains as the freshwater snail shells, and beetle elytra (wing casings).

Mammoth bones

Hundreds of mammoth bones, including skull fragments, leg bones, ribs, teeth, vertebrae and tusks have been found, representing at least five individuals. All of them belong to a species of Steppe mammoth, ancestor of the Woolly mammoth. Many of the bones have been examined by experts at the Natural History Museum, and some are under further analysis for evidence of butchery.

Neanderthal stone tools

Several stone tools have been found at the site, including the hand axe spotted by Sally and Neville. Our digs revealed further evidence of Neanderthal activity, including ‘scrapers’ – small, expertly crafted flint tools that would have been used for cleaning fresh hides, as well as debris from making other tools.

Environmental and dating evidence

The astounding preservation of the site means that we were able to recover crucial environmental and dating evidence, including fragile freshwater snail shells and delicate beetle elytra (protective wing cases), along with the more robust remains of other Ice Age megafauna, such as Steppe bison. Professional excavation, alongside the use of direct scientific dating techniques such as OSL dating, as well as indirect dating methods, means we have been able to date the bones, as well as the layers of sediment that they were found in, to between 210,00-200,000 years old during the MIS7 interglacial.

The discoveries are explored in a major new BBC documentary ‘Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard’, with Sir David Attenborough and evolutionary biologist Prof. Ben Garrod joining DigVentures on site to film the excavations.

Creating a BBC documentary has made an already exciting set of discoveries even more exciting: as well as being to show the finds themselves, the filming process means we’ve also been able to reveal the people, science, ideas, discussions behind them, hopefully helping to make both the discoveries, and the science, accessible to all. Of course, having Sir David Attenborough and award winning documentary-makers from Windfall Films along to help us do that was an incredible bonus!

In the field with David Attenborough

The first stage of filming took place in Summer 2019, when Sir David Attenborough, Prof. Ben Garrod, and a production team from Windfall Films joined us on site to film the excavations in action, capturing the moments of discovery and the discussions that took place around them. Sharing those moments with one of our childhood heroes was an unforgettable experience. Sir David, Ben, and the film crew returned in 2021 as we carried out a larger, more in-depth excavation which recovered more bones, more tools, and more evidence.

In the studio with David Attenborough

In autumn 2021, we took the bones to a film studio for Ben Garrod and David Attenborough to examine in detail. Laying all the bones out on a table together for the very first time made for an impressive sight, and seeing Sir David’s curiosity, excitement, and observational commentary in action was a delight.

In the lab with the conservators

The final stage of filming took place in our lab, where a specialist team of conservators came to carefully treat the mammoth tusk to ensure it doesn’t deterioriate. Removing artefacts from the ground, which has provided a stable environment for 200,000 years, is a shock to the system which can trigger physical and chemical changes. Making sure that artefacts are properly handled, conserved, and stored is one of the most important stages of any archaeological project which ensures they can be seen and studied for generations to come, but it’s a process that often goes unseen by those outside the field. Fitting a huge mammoth tusk, three conservators, and a film crew in the lab took quite some creativity… and a very flexible cameraman!

Five Ice Age mammoths unearthed with Neanderthal stone tools near Swindon

Five ice-age mammoths unearthed in Cotswolds after 220,000 years

Five ‘pristine’ ice-age mammoth skeletons unearthed in the Cotswolds

200,000-year-old ‘mammoth graveyard’ found in UK

‘Exceptional’ mammoth graveyard discovered near Swindon

Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard: Why an Ice Age discovery near Swindon has excited archaeologists

DigVentures is leading the research team into the next phase of discovery: we are already planning further research, and are exploring different ways that members of the public might be able to be part of it.

As is so often the case with scientific discoveries, this new site leaves us with more questions than answers. Did the mammoths all die together, victims of a tragic accident? Did their bodies accumulate over hundreds or perhaps thousands of years? Or were they the victims of skilled Neanderthal hunters?

With plenty of further research to be done in the lab, and with the vast majority of the site still to be thoroughly excavated, who knows how much more is yet to be revealed.

To start with, we are hosting online ‘behind-the-scenes’ events where you can meet our team, and explore the finds from the documentary.

We’re also launching PalaeoPixels: Future Climate Pioneers, a project for teenagers at local schools, who will get to work closely with the materials while learning to curate their own exhibition, developing practical skills across a huge range of disciplines in the process.

In short, what we’ve found so far is just the beginning. To follow the story of this new site as it progresses, and get alerts for any future opportunities to get involved, sign up below.

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