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Wednesday, 30 October, 2002, 13:04 GMT
'Extraordinary' woolly rhino finds
Skull, University of Birmingham
Rhino quarry: The back end is still to be found
Amos, BBC

The remains of four woolly rhinos have been unearthed in an English quarry.

Scientists describe the group find at Whitemoor Haye in Staffordshire as "extraordinary" and one of the best Ice Age discoveries of its type in Northern Europe in recent years.

Map, BBC
In addition to the great beasts, researchers have also dug out a remarkable range of superbly preserved plants and insects. One of the rhinos even has plant material still stuck to its teeth, giving possible clues to its last meal.

Taken together, the specimens should enable archaeologists to build up a detailed picture of what life was like in this particular corner of the UK 30-50,000 years ago.

"We'll be able to piece together the whole Ice Age environment in that area by the banks of the River Trent," said Simon Buteux, director of the field archaeology unit at the University of Birmingham.

'Totally unexpected'

He told BBC News Online: "The plants in particular are beautifully preserved - they look as if they were buried last week quite frankly. And in amongst them are remains of beetles which are very sensitive to the climate, so this will give us good clues to what the local environment was back then."

Enlarge image
Enlarge image

The great beast lived along the banks of the River Trent
The initial woolly rhino (Coelodonta antiquus) discovery was made by quarryman Ray Davies, who pulled up a massive skull in the bucket of his digger.

Gary Coates, a University of Birmingham archaeologist, said: "I've been working at Whitemoor Haye Quarry for five years and have excavated everything from prehistoric burial grounds to Roman farmsteads, but this find was totally unexpected.

"It's the biggest find - in all senses of the word - I've ever been involved with."

Researchers have recovered most of the front end of the beast. They say it is the most complete woolly rhino specimen found in the UK in modern times.

Freeze protection

"This is the best example of a woolly rhino I have ever seen," said Andy Currant, palaeontologist and Ice Age expert from the Natural History Museum in London, where the bones have now been taken.

Woolly Rhino, BBC
Woolly rhino (C. antiquitatis) may have survived until as recently as 10,000 years ago
"The bones are exceptionally well preserved. Usually, remains have been scavenged by predators and only fragments survive."

The research teams on site are confident of finding the back end of the animal soon, but they have already found remains from three other individuals. One of the skulls is over a metre in length.

The dig has also uncovered bones from a mammoth, reindeer, wild horse, bison and a wolf.

"We'd love to find evidence of human activity - Neanderthals perhaps - but we think this period was simply too cold for humans to have been able to cope with," said Simon Buteux.

"The indications for that come from the first rhino itself. The reason it is so well preserved is probably because it froze immediately it died and this stopped it being broken up by predator or scavenger activity."

Further excavation at Whitemoor Haye Quarry is being funded by English Nature through their Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund Grants Scheme. This should give researchers the time and money they need to fully explore the site.

Archaeologist Simon Buteaux
"Out fell a nearly complete woolly rhino"
See also:

06 Oct 02 | Science/Nature
05 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
14 Jun 00 | Science/Nature
14 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
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