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Mammoth riddle: the tooth is out there

PUBLISHED: 14:57 09 October 2008 | UPDATED: 09:11 13 July 2010

She thought she had stumbled upon a piece of fascinating flotsam to use in a sculpture.

But when artist Belinda Opie had a chance meeting in her local with a fossil expert, she found out there was more to this humble-looking bit of beach debris than met the eye.

By NATASHA VICTOR

She thought she had stumbled upon a piece of fascinating flotsam to use in a sculpture.

But when artist Belinda Opie had a chance meeting in her local with a fossil expert, she found out there was more to this humble-looking bit of beach debris than met the eye.

For it is actually a 500,000-year-old mammoth tooth.

And its sudden reappearance near the cliffs at Happisburgh after half a million years has raised fears that creeping coastal erosion is washing many of the UK's pre-historic fossils into the sea.

Mrs Opie, 58, found the fossil on the steps outside her home near the beach as she went for a morning swim.

Later, she met palaeontologist Simon Parfitt from the Natural History Museum, in the Hill House pub in the village.

She said: “It was an extraordinary meeting. Simon verified the possible age of the tooth and explained that it had probably ended up on my doorstep after being washed up from another part of the coast.

“The synchronicity of finding the fossil so easily and meeting a palaeontologist in the same week has been astonishing.”

Mrs Opie is now planning to use the mammoth tooth at her sculpture exhibition in Pall Mall, London and will eventually donate the intact fossil to the Natural History Museum.

She said: “I am not going to tamper with the tooth, but may use it as a perch for a small sculpture to sit on at the gallery before donating it for research purposes.”

The same stretch of coastline hit the headlines in 2001 when ex-policeman Mike Chambers found a hand-axe sticking out of the seabed. Six years later, archaeologists on Channel Four's Time Team dated it to between 500,000 and 700,000 years old.

Mrs Opie, who is making a donation from her exhibition to Coastal Concern Action Group (CCAG), said: “It would be great if human remains were found which could press the government to deem this a national heritage site.”

Malcolm Kerby, co-ordinator of CCAG, was angry that legislation was not geared towards coast management and the protection of our cultural heritage.

He said; “My main concern is that much of the evidence of man's habitation and indeed the earth's climatic and temperature changes over millennia are locked up as fossils below what becomes the sea bed once the cliffs have eroded. So once the cliffs are gone and the sea has taken their place that evidence will be lost to us forever.”

According to the British Archaeology publication in January 2006, near the base of the eroding sea cliffs from Happisburgh in Norfolk to Pakefield in Suffolk lies the remarkably well preserved remains of Cromer forest-bed.

It is believed that the organic materials laid down are remains of 'Britain' when it was part of the European continent 500,000 years ago.

The publication said the Norfolk-Suffolk coast had a dramatic new significance and added: “intermittently along 80km - surely one of the world's largest archaeological sections - evidence for northern Europe's first known humans is almost daily tumbling into the sea.”

t The exhibition Thinking Beyond runs from November 10-22. To find out more, go to www.edp24.co.uk/dailylinks.


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