Digging a trench around the rhino skull to aid its removal

The average person does not normally associate the North Kent coast with woolly rhinoceros and mammoth.

On Sunday 20th March 2005 Christopher Millbank, a member of the Medway Fossil and Mineral Society (MFMS), was walking the Thanet Coast with a friend Dr.Colin Hills of the University of Greenwich and Colin's eleven year old son Harry. Christopher and Harry were looking for fossils when they literally tripped over the skull of a woolly rhinoceros estimated to date from 50,000 years ago. Fortunately, Christopher was immediately able to identify the find.

The skull was in a fragile state. Its cranium, which had not filled with sediment, had fractured, possibly under the weight of the water above it. Only uncovered for about one hour each side of low tide, it was being further damaged by each successive tide. If the remains were to be rescued, urgent action was clearly necessary.

Christopher contacted Dr Ed Jarzembowski, Head of the Natural History Section at Maidstone Museum, and an emergency recovery operation was organised.

The BBC cameraman gets some video footage of the mammoth jaw as Toy Vale and Martin Rayner work on its removal

The location of the find is protected by conservation law. English Nature was therefore contacted to obtain permission for the skull to be extracted using a JCB excavator to speed its removal.

On Sunday 10th April about fifteen volunteers turned up to support the project. The JCB did not get beyond the shingle before becoming bogged down and the skull had to be excavated by hand. But there was a bonus. Tony Vale, a member of the Kent Geologists' Group, turned up as a volunteer and, while waiting for the rhino excavation to start, discovered a woolly mammoth jaw with tooth attached. Tony, who specialises in fossils of the London Clay, said that this was his first mammoth find and was delighted by his discovery.

The mammoth jaw was closer to the low tide limit but its removal went very smoothly and was achieved without damage. Removal of the rhinoceros skull became a desperate race against time. Because of its fragility it had to be adequately protected before it could be moved. It finally came free only seconds before the advancing tide engulfed the hole where it had lain for tens of thousands of years.

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Chris Millbank covers the rhino skull in plaster to protect it

To free the rhinoceros skull a trench more than a foot deep was dug around it. As much surplus material as possible was removed. Another trench was dug to drain water away from the skull's location and a dam was raised to help retard the incoming tide. The skull was covered with wax, then layers of bandage soaked in plaster. The quick setting plaster protected the skull from the stresses of lifting it into a crate for removal.

The rhinoceros skull now had to be prepared. The extent of preparation would not be known until after initial cleaning, but it was hoped to have the skull ready for display in Maidstone Museum by September 2005. Dr Ed Jarzembowski said that the museum has fossils collected as long ago as 1840 but none of their rhinoceros skulls has teeth. This skull, with teeth, could be their most significant find yet.

Dr Colin Hills said that the find cannot be dated precisely as yet. However, a colleague, Dr David Horne of Queen Mary's College London, has taken sediment samples and hopes to obtain an accurate date using Ostracods, though it's possible that Molluscs could be more useful in dating the find.

The skull is safely removed before the incoming tide swamps its original resting place

Christopher Millbank said that many different mammalian fossils have been found near the location of the rhinoceros skull and mammoth jaw. He has previously found mammoth remains but fossils are mostly found as fragments only and are very localised suggesting that the remains may have been deposited by a river. They could also have been deposited by a single action such as a flash flood. These possibilities must remain pure conjecture in the absence of supporting evidence. There must be a strong case for a scientific evaluation of the area with all finds identified and precise locations recorded.

The location of the fossils recovered today was recorded accurately using GPS. Their positions can thus be plotted to support any subsequent scientific investigation of the area.

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Dr Ed Jarzembowski thanked all of the volunteers who had helped in the operation. Without their efforts the fossils could not have been recovered in the very short time available.

For further pictures of the recovery operations, click on one of the links below:-

The foreshore, where the woolly rhino skull was found, is part of the Thanet Coast Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is protected by conservation laws. Permission for the excavation was given by English Nature.

Sadly, three weeks passed between the initial discovery and the rescue operation. During the preparation that followed the recovery, the skull was found to be too damaged to be saved. This emphasises the need for fossil hunters and conservation bodies to work together and act quickly if potentially important finds are to be preserved for future generations.