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The West Runton Elephant

West Runton Elephant
(The West Runton Elephant)

On the 13th of December 1990, following a storm, Harold and Margaret Hems took a walk on the beach to see if any fossils had been uncovered by the sea. They found a large bone partly exposed in the face of the freshwater bed and realising its importance contacted Norfolk Museums Service. Excavation soon revealed that their find was the pelvic bone of a huge elephant. Next to the pelvic bone was a much smaller bone, an astragalus (ankle bone), also of an elephant. The occurrence of more than one elephant bone, apparently from the same individual, suggested that more bones might eventually come to light as the cliff was eroded by the sea.

The relatively narrow opening of the pelvic bone indicated that this was a male elephant. At Christmas 1991, the freshwater bed was once again eroded by heavy seas. This time several large bones exposed in the cliff were spotted by another keen eyed observer, Rob Sinclair, who also realised their importance and informed Norfolk Museums Service. It was now obvious that this was a find of major significance and in January 1992, a rescue excavation was carried out by staff from Cromer Museum and volunteers.

This excavation recovered all the bones that could be reached without unsafe tunnelling into the cliff face, about a quarter of the skeleton. Most of the backbone was found, parts of the right front limb and the lower jaw which identified the elephant, Mammuthus trogontherii. One of the limb bones could not be excavated as it led too far into the cliff and so it was protected by a sturdy small flint and cement wall build over the section.

The elephant was estimated to be four metres high. More bones were now at risk of destruction by the sea further eroding the cliffs during winter months. A small scale sea defence in the autumn of 1993 solved this problem, but now funding and project planning was needed.

The Heritage lottery fund and Anglian Water, funded the project and in 1995 the project started. Before the excavation could begin it was necessary to remove thousands of tonnes of sands, silts and gravel using a dragline sited on top of the cliff to expose the surface. The cliff had to be cut back at an angle of forty five degrees to provide a safe working environment for the team.


Excavation of the West Runton Elephant
(Excavation of the West Runton Elephant) - 1995

After two weeks of gradually excavating down from the top, at last elephant bones began to appear, much to the relief of the project director. More and more bones appeared including nearly all of the large limb bones, more vertebrae and part of the skull.

One of the femur bones
(One of the femur bones) - 1995

Part of skull and tusk
(Part of skull and tusk) - 1995

By the end of November, the elephant was a near-complete skeleton, by far the best and most impressive fossil ever found in the Cromer Forest Bed Formation.

The Elephant model,Grey bones have been found
(The Elephant model,Grey bones have been found)

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- (C)opyright 1998-2005 Alister Cruickshanks.
UK Fossils Management - Alister Cruickshanks & Roy Bullard
UK Fossils Curator - Ian Cruickshanks
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