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Could World Museum have some of the oldest human remains in Europe?

16 August 2017 by Jen G

Dr Emma Pomeroy from Liverpool John Moores University reveals all about some exciting discoveries in World Museum’s collections.

We’re excited to announce a new collaborative project led by researchers from the School of Natural Sciences and Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University and World Museum. The project will radiocarbon date five human teeth and part of a jawbone from World Museum’s collections. These all come from the same site that yielded the oldest known human remains from north-west Europe. These teeth and jaw could be important evidence for some of the earliest members of our species in

George Smerdon, site foreman for William Pengelly’s excavations, at the entrance to Kent’s Cavern in 1890. Photo from the British Geological Survey.

the UK.

Kent’s Cavern, near Torquay in Devon, has been known as an important paleontological and archaeological site since it was first excavated in the 19th century. Various people have excavated the caves, most notably William Pengelly who worked there from 1858-1880, and excavations continue today. As well as bones from Ice Age animals like rhinoceros, bears, hyenas and lions, and stone tools produced by early humans, various fragments of human bones and teeth were also found in this network of caves. Some of these human bones are relatively recent, dating to the Medieval period or later, while others such as the KC-4 maxilla (upper jaw bone) date as far back as 43-42,000 years ago.

Some of these finds found their way to World Museum in the 1940s, following the death of Willoughby Ellis. He had volunteered at the Torquay Museum where much of the Kent’s Material is still kept, and obtained a significant quantity of the finds from the excavations at Kent’s. During his life and after his death, these bones and artefacts found their way into museum and University collections around the UK and beyond.

The upper jaw bone and five loose teeth from Kent’s Cavern in the World Museum collections

After visiting the World Museum collections in April, Dr Isabelle De Groote and I, both human bone specialists from Liverpool John Moores University, realised that the Kent’s human remains at World Museum had not been described in scientific publications before. Recognising these could be important evidence of the earliest humans in this part of the world, we won a grant from the Natural Environment Research Council to radiocarbon date the specimens at the University of Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU). Professor Higham and his team dated the KC-4 maxilla from Kent’s Cavern, which is still the oldest evidence of our species in the UK.

While we’re very excited, we’re bracing ourselves for a real roller-coaster ride!

Radiocarbon dating will only work if the organic part of the teeth and bone are well enough preserved. While methods for radiocarbon dating continue to improve, it’s not been possible to date some remains from Kent’s in the past. The famous KC-4 maxilla from the site, the oldest human remains in north-west Europe, could not be dated directly, only by dating animal bones found above and below it.

But even if we can date the teeth, we already know that some human remains from Kent’s are very recent, so it’s possible that these are just a few hundred year old. Much of the material excavated by Pengelly was assigned a number so that its precise location in the cave can be identified to within less than a metre. This approach was really pioneering for archaeological excavations at Pengelly’s time. If we knew where in the cave the teeth and jaw came from, that would give us an idea of roughly how old they might be. Unfortunately, this information on the human remains from the World Museum collections must have been lost long ago.

Nonetheless, we do have a few clues. The oldest material from Kent’s Cavern (before 10,000 years ago) was found in a distinct red-coloured deposit (soil), and one of the WML teeth has traces of a similar coloured soil still stuck to it.

One of the teeth from Kent’s Cavern, a lower wisdom tooth (number LIVCM 44.28.WE.3), in the collections of World Museum (1). This has red soil sticking to it, similar to the soils found in the older layers of the cave. An example is shown in image 2, which is a carnivore tooth still embedded in the ‘red breccia’ from the cave. Similar red colouring can also be seen on the KC-4 maxilla in Torquay Museum which was dated to around 42-43,000 years old.

The other specimens have traces of a much more brown coloured soil on them, suggesting they might be younger. Several of the teeth have large cavities, which tend to be more common in people who lived within the last few thousand years than in people who lived much longer ago. The only way to be really sure how old the remains are though is to radiocarbon date them.

Even if the teeth and jaw prove to be more recent, that is important information too. Once we know how old they are, they can be used for research about people and their health at that particular time.

Aidan Chavasse – centenary of the death of Noel Chavasse’s younger brother.

Soldier

Lieutenant Aidan Chavasse

In the coming weeks, there will be much written about Captain Noel Chavasse VC, as the 100th anniversary of his death on 4 August 1917 approaches. Read more…

More Pride online!

23 February 2017 by Kay

Statuette of standing Hermaphrodite

Pride and Prejudice is our groundbreaking project to put online the social history collections held at the Museum of Liverpool, and the fine and decorative art collections at Sudley House, Walker and Lady Lever art galleries, that have an LGBT connection. We’re excited to launch the final themes today, coinciding with LGBT History Month and the OUTing the past event at the Museum of Liverpool this weekend.
Read more…

Trailblazing transgender service in the British military

13 February 2017 by Kay

Caroline holding up her military uniform jacket

© Stephen King

Our 3rd blog post from one of our inspiring speakers from OUTing the Past: The 3rd National Festival of LGBT History conference, 25 February is Caroline Paige.

Caroline, born in Wallasey, became the first officer to transition gender in the British Armed Forces. She had already served 19 years in the RAF, on fighter aircraft and battlefield helicopters, and following her transition, completed a further 16 years.

Her fascinating talk will reveal the untold story of what it meant to be transgender in the British military before and after permissive LGBT service, the highs and the lows, in peacetime and in war.  Read more…

A warrior with some marker pens, glue and a photocopier!

6 February 2017 by Kay

red ribbon design with hearts

Our second blog post from one of our excellent speakers from OUTing the Past: The 3rd National Festival of LGBT History conference, which is coming to the Museum of Liverpool on 25 February, is Andrew Dineley. Andrew is the Creative Director of Soft Octopus Design Studio and will be discussing his activism and work designing, amongst many other things, Liverpool’s influential first HIV/AIDS public health materials in the 1980s. Read more…

‘Corruption of public morals’! – OUTing the Past

31 January 2017 by Kay

newspaper front page

International Times with ‘Busted’ headline. Courtesy Liverpool John Moores University

In the run up to our free conference OUTing the Past: The 3rd National Festival of LGBT History on 25 February, we will be publishing some special guest blogs by our exciting speakers to give you a flavour of the day and to find out more.

Our first is Valerie Stevenson, Head of Academic Services, Liverpool John Moores University who will be revealing the prosecution case of the International Times newspaper and the ‘corruption of public morals’. Read more…

The weird and wonderful jobs of Pembroke Place

9 January 2017 by Liz

Street sign for Pembroke Place

Today we have a guest blog from Richard MacDonald, a freelance historical researcher and Blue Badge Guide. Richard is leading a team of volunteers investigating historic street directories as part of the Galkoff’s and the Secret Life of Pembroke Place project.

“Have you ever been in the awkward situation of finding yourself with a filthy ostrich feather and not knowing how best to clean it? Read more…

New LGBT objects uncovered

5 December 2016 by Kay

Shaun Duggan with cup of tea

Shaun Duggan

Two new themes, Love and Relationships and Sex and Eroticism (what everyone’s been waiting for!) have now been launched as part of our Pride and Prejudice research project.

We have discovered some fascinating objects in our collections which tell a range of stories and histories. Some of my highlights featured are – Read more…

Pride and Prejudice – we need you

23 November 2016 by Matt

logoPride and Prejudice: Bringing stories out of the closet is a groudbreaking project to reveal the sometimes hidden LGBT histories of objects held at National Museums Liverpool’s art galleries and the Museum of Liverpool. The results of what the team have uncovered can be found on the project web pages, with more to be added at the end of this month.

A two year project, there is still much to come in the next 12 months.

In the next few weeks, there are two opportunities to meet the team at the Walker Art Gallery on 30 November, and the Museum of Liverpool  on 10 December. Come and find out what’s planned for 2017 and see how you can get involved.

Read more…

How do you research the history of a street?

14 November 2016 by Liz

1835-pembroke-pl-gage-liv-2152-map-whole-flat-for-web

Detail from Gage’s Map of Liverpool, 1835, showing Pembroke Place

The Museum of Liverpool’s current project Galkoff’s and the Secret Life of Pembroke Place is exploring the history of Pembroke Place with our partners, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine – long term ‘residents’ of the street.

Volunteers are working with us to explore this history – but where do you start learning about a whole street and its long past? Read more…



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Welcome to the National Museums Liverpool blog! Written by our staff and volunteers, we’ll give you a peek behind the scenes of our museums and galleries.

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We try to ensure that the information provided on our blog is accurate and that appropriate permissions to use images have been sought. The opinions in each blog are very much those of the individuals writing.