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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.

100 days until Christmas parties start at National Museums Liverpool!

9 August 2017 by Eleanor Webster

world-museum-dancing-christmasCan you believe it’s August? With friends and family jetting off on exotic holidays and the parks full of children enjoying their summer break, it hardly seems like the right time to start talking about Christmas. But at National Museums Liverpool, we’re talking about Christmas all year round, whether it’s our innovative team of chefs planning next years festive dinners, or our award-winning events team sourcing decorations for our unique venues. But with only 100 days to go until our first all-inclusive festive party, the pace is really beginning to pick up. Read more…

Greece is the word

Curator of antiquities Chrissy Partheni delivering a Greek workshop.

What is a curator’s knowledge and passion if not shared? How important is it that we reach out to communities and make the future generation aware and proud of their heritage?

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The sun always shines at National Museums Liverpool!

24 July 2017 by Megan

Six long weeks to fill and entertain the kids is looming. But National Museums Liverpool has a fun-filled summer of events and activities planned for the whole family so there is no excuse to feel bored!

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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…

Excavating in Kouklia, Cyprus

Manor House now used as the Museum building at Kouklia.

Nothing beats visiting archaeological sites and taking part in live excavations. While working on digitising the material from the Kouklia 1950s excavations in our collections I contacted Professor Maria Iacovou from the University of Cyprus about the Palaepaphos Urban Landscape Project (PULP) and current excavations at Kouklia in Cyprus as part of my documentation. I was delighted when Maria kindly invited me to visit the site and meet members of the team.

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Animals in the ancient Near East

28 June 2017 by Scott Smith

Jug in the form of a kneeling bull

Jug in the form of a kneeling cow or bull

The ancient Near East was a region that roughly corresponds to the modern Middle East (including Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria). World Museum’s Ancient Near East collection contains antiquities from the pre-classical civilisations of the ancient Near East and a selection of highlights from the collections is now available to view online for the first time…

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Revealing classical treasures at World Museum

6 June 2017 by Chrissy Partheni

The classical relief now visible in World Museum’s new cafe. The inscription reads Deus Nobis Haec Otia Fecita: God has given us these days of leisure.

I will never forget my first impression of Liverpool, almost 18 years ago. The impressive architecture of the city with its classical references was definitely an attraction to a Greek. But while it is easy to spot the classical influences on the exterior of Liverpool’s buildings, we often miss their interior decoration. The extension of our brand new café into the Mountford building is an excellent opportunity to view such prime examples and to perhaps think of the reasons why classical antiquity imagery became such an important narrative of civic pride and glory in 19th century Liverpool.

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The pitfalls of recreating a pit burial

30 May 2017 by Alex Blakeborough

The final put burial display.

The final pit burial display.

What colour should the sand be? This was just one of the many things we had to think about when installing the pit burial case for the new Ancient Egypt gallery.

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Half-term highlights

23 May 2017 by Megan

 

Family crafts

Half-term is fast approaching and National Museums Liverpool has a fantastic range of activities to keep the little ones busy. 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.