Day an ice age beast was found under the floorboards of a Lancashire house
Blogger Lorna Smithers investigates the strange case of the pre-historic elk found beneath a Lancashire house which holds vital information about the nation’s natural history
He’s the centrepiece of the Discover Preston Gallery at the Harris Museum.
He’s become iconic. His skeleton stands at around 2m at shoulder height and he might have weighed up to 700kg. By his palmate antlers he can be identified immediately as alces alces – a Eurasian Elk. His bones have been radio-carbon dated to 11,500BC, making him one of our oldest ancestral animals at 13,500 years old.
The remains of Horace the Elk were discovered in the 1970s when John Devine of Blackpool Old Road, in Carleton, near Poulton-le-Fylde, demolished his bungalow and began digging the foundations for his new home. He first spotted the skull and a broken antler. With help from neighbour, Tony Scholey, and Jim Audus of Poulton Historical Society, followed by a more formal excavation carried out by John Hallam, Ben Edwards, Tony Stuart, and Adrian Lewis, Horace’s skeleton was recovered from layers of mud.
Examination revealed that he was four to six years old and, because he was due to shed his antlers, he was killed in winter. He had 17 injuries mainly caused by flint-tipped instruments to the ribs. Most intriguingly two barbed points were found. One of these was with a rib bone. The second was in the metatarsal bones in his left foot. The lesion, which would have taken one-two weeks to form, evidences that Horace was injured in an earlier hunt and had managed to escape his hunters.
Soil analysis revealed the presence of both ‘tree pollen’ and ‘tiny freshwater shellfish’ showing Horace died in a shallow lake surrounded by trees. This suggests Horace either fled into or was chased into the water and died from the collapse of his lungs caused by his injuries. Frustratingly for the hunters, but luckily for us, his corpse must have sunk before they could recover it.
Horace’s remains are of national importance as they provide evidence not only for the existence of elk around the end of the Ice Age, but also for our earliest local hunter-gatherer people who were known during the Iron Age as the Setantii and later as ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’.
Elk became extinct in Britain in during the Bronze Age. The bones of the last known elk were recovered from the river Cree in Scotland in 1997 and have been dated to 2829-2145BC. In other countries of Europe such as Norway, Sweden, and Finland, they have survived, as well as in Asia and North America. Outside of Britain they are somewhat confusingly called moose whereas waipti are called elk.
When I began researching the lifestyle of elk I was fascinated to discover that, like our human ancestors, elk have been described as ‘semi-amphibious’. Their long limbs and broad feet make them particularly suited for traversing wetland landscapes and they are able not only to swim through water but dive down underneath it and eat submerged plants at depths of up to five metres below the surface.
At this time there would have been a mixture of birch-pine woodland, alder carr, fen woodland, reed beds, and reed swamp at the edges of the glacial lakes. Through the summer elk would have fed on aquatic plants and in the winter they would have survived on the twigs and bark of trees. Elk are capable of rearing up and pulling down trees of up to six foot tall to access new growth.
The rutting season for elk is early September to late November. During displays they approach their rivals, tipping their antlers left and right, and calling in rhythm to their steps. Once they’ve defeated their rivals and mated their testosterone levels fall and they lose their antlers. It was at this point in his life that Horace was killed. Calves are born between April and July.
The cows are fiercely protective of their offspring having been known to ‘face down wolves, bears and even helicopters’. It is possible that Horace’s sons and daughters wandered this land for several thousand years.
The severity of Horace’s injuries provides evidence both for the determination of the hunters and his will to survive. He was firstly injured by the barbed point of a harpoon which had stuck in his left foot, managing to limp away and survive for one-two weeks before the second hunt. It seems likely the flint-tipped instruments which struck his ribs were spears and additionally the barbed point of a harpoon lodged in his rib cage.
Historian David Barrowclough also speaks of an injury with an axe severing his tendons suggesting his hunters, at one point, got very close. Perhaps this was how they managed to strike him 17 times in total before he dived, fell or was chased into the lake. A male elk in his prime would have been a prized kill. His massive body would have provided food for days, his thick hide clothing, and his bones may have been used to make more barbed points or perhaps elk bone mattocks akin to those used by the people of Star Carr 1,000 years later.
How those ancient hunter-gatherers would have viewed these magnificent animals remains unknown. The deer-antlered headdresses from Star Carr are suggestive of rites in which the hunters became one with the animal they hunted, knowing it intimately, acting out its behaviours. It is possible they believed acting out a successful hunt would bring about success in the future.
Of course it’s less likely similar elk dances would have taken place due to the fact elk antlers could grow up to two metres and would have been incredibly heavy. Yet they would have been familiar with the elk’s lifestyle and one can imagine that the preparation for an elk hunt and the hunt itself were highly ritualised acts dependent on the will of the elk as a physical and spirit being and the guidance and support of the hunter deities.
Unfortunately, if a sacred and reverential relationship between elk and humans existed, it did not prevent the extinction of elk from Britain. They died for two main reasons. The first was that the weather grew too warm for them as thick-hided cold-adapted creatures used to surviving snows. They no doubt survived in Scotland for longer because it is cooler. The second reason was human hunting. If the ancient hunter-gatherers were aware of their plight they did not place it above their own needs. Like the equally monumental aurochs they hunted them into extinction.
* Lorna Smithers’ blog From Peneverdant can be found at www.lornasmithers.wordpress.com/