Next time you visit Norfolk, call in at the Norwich Castle museum or even the bijou establishment in Cromer, and if you have very sharp eyes, you might just see a few bones of one of the most important fossils on Earth.
The bones are of a steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii), discovered in 1990 in the cliffs at West Runton. Much excavation and scholarship later, the creature was found to have been a 41-year-old bull mammoth that got mired in a muddy riverbank around 700,000 years ago. 85% of the skeleton was recovered – far more than any other find of this species. The mammoth – much larger than the later and relatively petite woolly variety (Mammuthus primigenius) – was almost four metres high at the shoulder. It would have weighed twice as much as a modern African bull elephant, and the specimen is one of the largest and best preserved fossil mammals found anywhere in the world.
It was unfortunate for the mammoth that it died in the doubtless uncomfortable and painful way it did. It was doubly unfortunate that it was discovered in nimbyist numbskull Norfolk.
You’d think that someone at the Norfolk Museums Service would have had the vision and gumption to put this amazing specimen on display. The costs of doing so would have been repaid by the £££ raised as a visitor attraction. The mammoth could have been a centrepiece for an exhibit of major international significance on the Ice Ages, climate change, and even the earliest human occupation of northern Europe – yes, people were around, too, and might even have bumped into the mammoth’s friends and relations.
Twenty years after the find, all but a few fragments of the mammoth are hidden away, unseen by the general public, in storage at a museum otherwise devoted to folk history. Yet apart from the sorry excuses for exhibits in Norwich and Cromer, all that exists for general perusal is a notice on the slipway at West Runton itself, visited some time ago by a few hardy explorers not entirely unadjacent to this parish.
A major mammoth exhibit could do for Norfolk what the Eden Project has done for Cornwall. But apart from pulling in tourism (which, after all, is a major industry in Norfolk), you’d have thought that such a thing would be a matter of local pride, and would gravitate to the top of the local agenda.
But, again, no.
Norfolk is a county distinctly devoid of vision. Its local authorities tend to regard visionary proposals with frank incomprehension, tending instead to listen to its resident nimbyist bungaloid curtain twitchers. The intellectual scope of debate engendered by the prospect of anything new is exemplified by the bitter, decade-long debate about whether a branch of Tesco should open in the coastal town of Sheringham (See what passes for the arguments for and against, if you really feel you have to). We have one of the most important natural history specimens in the world, a potential exhibit of global significance, and we wrangle about one-stop shopping provision? Pathetic, I call it. Completely, utterly, arse-dribblingly, buttock-clenchingly, eye-swivellingly pathetic.
O, that we were in China, where fossil heritage is appreciated and capitalized on and recognized for its importance, and where there is a planning system that doesn’t feel the need to pay much attention to microcephalic local opposition. One can say many things about the governance of China, but lack of vision is not one of its faults. If Norfolk took a leaf from the Chinese book, we’d have a museum of gigantic proportions featuring the mammoth and much else, such that even the smallest minds would appreciate the transformations of the fortunes of the community.