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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.

Lessons in 19th century life sciences

21 July 2017 by Donna

Over the last year I have had the pleasure of working alongside David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections at Manchester Museum, in developing a new temporary exhibition – Object Lessons.

‘Object Lessons’, at Manchester Museum.

The exhibition at Manchester Museum showcases the wonderful private collection of 19th century natural science teaching objects and illustrations that has been assembled by art collector George Loudon.

All of the items on display were originally created to increase understanding of the natural world through education, demonstration and display. They resulted from collaborations between leading scientists and accomplished craftsmen. Over time many of these items have lost their educational function, but they can now be viewed from a fresh perspective and appreciated for their intrinsic and beguiling beauty.  George has built up his collection with an expert and detailed eye for the aesthetic and creative value of the objects.  Read more…

Trinidad and Tobago herbarium specimens join the botany collection

15 March 2017 by Wendy

Pitch lake

Pitch lake

The recent acquisition to World Museum’s herbarium of 131 specimens from the islands of Trinidad and Tobago has been an interesting and welcome addition to Botany’s collection. Prior to acquiring this collection, we had less than 100 specimens from Trinidad and Tobago, the vast majority of these being a collection of grasses.

Joanna Ostapkowicz, Curator of the Americas collections at World Museum, collected the herbarium specimens, along with colleagues on the islands, during field work for her research project on wooden artefacts that have been found in Trinidad’s Pitch Lake. Read more…

The King of Kaputa: life as a trader in 19th century Africa

21 December 2016 by Zachary

Eshira beaded belt with English-made metal buckle, collected in Gabon by J.G.C. Harrison and said to have been made by the niece of a King named Ngorlay.

The Harrison group of Central African objects can now be seen online. It is an important early collection, because it is unusually well documented for its time. The museum’s records relating to Harrison’s donations, which were made in 1879 and 1883, are still relatively brief but they suggest that Harrison acquired the artefacts through his close personal relationships with Central Africans.  Read more…

Jars for the afterlife

12 September 2016 by Lynn

Canopic jarsThe first in a series of blogs from Marion Servat-Fredericq, Assistant Curator of Antiquities, reveals aspects of the fascinating culture of Ancient Egypt through some objects from our collection.

“We have put some of the most popular objects from our Egyptian collection on display online while the Ancient Egypt gallery is closed for extensive refurbishment.  This beautiful set of Egyptian canopic jars, also on display in the atrium, give us insight into Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife. Read more…

All creatures great and small: netsuke at World Museum

9 September 2016 by Emma Martin

Emma and Helen installing netsuke on the new mount

Emma and Helen installing netsuke on the new mount

Last week we re-displayed some of our new Japanese netsuke in the World Cultures gallery in World Museum. This wonderful collection of carved toggles was given to the museum in memory of the well-known 20th century collector Jonas Goro Gadelius.

Each year we refresh the display bringing a new group of netsuke out from the stores. This year I chose the theme ‘mini beasts’ and we now have a new mount inspired by a bonsai tree. Read more…

Piecing together an excavation

6 September 2016 by Chrissy Partheni

The excavation at Kouklia in progress

The excavation at Kouklia in progress

My mother is from the town of Morphou in Cyprus and I therefore have always felt a special connection with the Cypriot collections in the antiquities department. One significant group is material from Kouklia, from a joint excavation between our museum and St. Andrews University. The excavation was ambitious and of significant scale and attracted a lot of media attention as a result. It was undertaken across five successive seasons from 1950 – 1955. It’s hard to imagine museums having the resource to undertake such a large excavation today in the current economic climate.  Read more…

Selim Aga: African-born explorer

30 August 2016 by Zachary

Nupe gown from Bida collected by Selim Aga in about 1857 (20.11.60.2).

Nupe gown from Bida collected by Selim Aga in about 1857 (20.11.60.2).

After Liverpool Museum opened in its new building on William Brown Street in October 1860 (now World Museum), the first five African artefacts it acquired a month later were purchased from the African-born explorer Selim Aga. Aga acquired these five artefacts in the interior of Nigeria on the voyage of the Dayspring. You can find out more about Selim Aga and see the items he collected in our new Selim Aga online collection.

The Niger Expedition ship the Dayspring, built at Lairds in Birkenhead 1857.

The Niger Expedition ship the Dayspring, built at Lairds in Birkenhead 1857.

But the objects in this group only hint at Aga’s remarkable life as an explorer. Read more…

Our classical collections feature in Biennial exhibition at Tate Liverpool

27 July 2016 by Andrew

Ancient Greece episode at Tate Liverpool

Ancient Greece episode at Tate Liverpool

In April, we told you about Chrissy Partheni, Curator of Antiquities at World Museum and her involvement with this year’s Biennial in Liverpool – read it here. Working alongside curators at Tate Liverpool and Biennial, we were able to loan objects from our classical collections, in particular from Henry Blundell’s sculptural collections, forming part of the Biennial Ancient Greece Episode exhibition there. Chrissy says: Read more…

Liverpool’s Tibet collection goes live!

15 March 2016 by Emma Martin

Meditation painting or thangka

Meditation painting or thangka sold to the museum in 1905 by Sergeant J Heaney on his return to Liverpool after participating in the Mission to Lhasa

It’s a little known fact that Liverpool has one of the world’s great Tibet collections. Liverpool doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for a Tibet collection; you might think of Liverpool’s maritime connections rather than it’s Himalayan ones. But 19th century missionaries, soldiers and explorers did sell or donate Tibetan objects to Liverpool having arrived in its port after a long journey from India. 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.