Written by Angharad Jones, Collections Officer, Creswell Heritage Trust.
1. What sort of geological collections do you look after?
I work as the Collections Officer at Creswell Crags Museum and Heritage Centre. The collection is primarily composed of palaeontological and archaeological material excavated from the caves at Creswell Crags, including Church Hole, Mother Grundy’s Parlour, Pin Hole and Robin Hood Cave. There are also items from the wider Creswell Heritage Area, such as Dead Man’s Cave, Steetly Quarry Cave and Thorpe Common Rock Shelter, in addition to field walking finds.
The palaeontological collection is comprised of sub-fossils from the Late Pleistocene (the period from 125,000 to around 11,700 years ago), with some slightly younger material as well. These include the bones and teeth of a large range of mammal, bird, amphibian, fish and mollusc species.
2. What is your collection usually used for and by whom?
The collection is used for a variety of purposes. Some items are on display in the main exhibition space. This exhibition details past environments, the variety of animals that lived in Creswell Crags, and human occupation of the area. Some items are also on loan to other museums for their exhibitions.
Objects are also used during school visits and outreach, although these are primarily from the handling and comparative collections.
Otherwise, the items are used for research including for undergraduate dissertations, PhD theses and by other researchers. These might entail studies of an entire site, or of an individual species. I remember visiting Creswell Crags to study the hyenas for my own PhD research. Little did I know that a few years later, I would be working here myself!
3. What is the most famous item in your collection and why?
The most famous items are probably the large mammals from the caves of Creswell Crags itself. This may be because they are more famous than those of the surrounding area. Indeed, the Lower Cave Earth from Pin Hole, excavated by Leslie Armstrong, has been designated as the Mammal Assemblage Zone for Marine Oxygen Isotope Stage 3 (the middle of the last glacial period, Currant and Jacobi, 2011).
Items from the Lower Cave Earth include impressive specimens such as jaws of horse and spotted hyena, and isolated teeth of woolly rhinoceros and brown bear.
4. What is the most viewed part of your collection and why?
Aside from the items in the exhibition, which would be the most viewed overall, we have a lot of researchers visit the objects we have in the stores. Although we do occasionally open the stores up to the public too. From this February, we will be commencing weekly collections tours to allow the public to view the specimens in the stores, too.
Pin Hole has been particularly popular recently. However, as I have only been here a few months, I am finding that each research request is different, and everyone wants to view different things. Recent requests have involved specimens of large mammals, many of which were accumulated in the caves as a result of predation and scavenging by spotted hyenas. There are also thousands of small animals such as voles and lemmings, which were likely deposited in the caves by birds of prey. Moreover, humans occupied the caves, so research into human prehistory, and the interaction with animals in the past, is always of interest.
5. What is your favourite story about your collection that illustrates its importance and use?
I really like the story of Eric. This is an almost complete and well-preserved skeleton of a baby hyena, which is a pretty rare find! Part of Eric was excavated in the 1920s by Leslie Armstrong, and the rest of the skeleton was discovered in the 1970s by Rogan Jenkinson. However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that the different parts of Eric were assembled, which was done by Jane Ford, a PhD student. Eric is now displayed in our main exhibition.
This story suggests to me that, despite many of the specimens having been excavated decades ago, there is still much research to be done. This is attested to by the variety of research visits that have taken place in the few months since I started working here.
6. If you had unlimited funds, how would you develop your collection?
Unlimited funds – I’m going big! I’d love to increase research into the collections. Perhaps a massive lab, including facilities for DNA, radiocarbon dating, isotope research, scanning facilities, and more!
I also crowd-sourced some other (rather ambitious) ideas from the office:
- Animatronic Neanderthal
- Life-size mammoth that speaks
- Portable caves for outreach
- Life-size replicas of all major caves in Europe to provide a walking tour through prehistory, followed by portable art-making facilitated by experts
- Wolverine enclosure (as we don’t have any wolverines in the comparative collection) and a friendly wolverine in the handling collection
- Virtual reality of all objects in the collections
- La Brea ball pit with models of Pleistocene mammals
I think we’d need a bigger collections’ store!
Currant, A. P. and Jacobi, R. (2011) ‘The Mammal Faunas of the British Late Pleistocene’, in Ashton, N., Lewis, S., and Stringer, C. (eds) The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain. Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 165–180.