John Hesketh and the finding of the ‘Aveley Elephants’

These days, there is little doubt that amateurs can influence science. This is commonly encountered in astronomy, with the regular discovery of comets and asteroids by amateurs. On the other hand, with some noteworthy exceptions, it is not such a frequent occurrence in the science of palaeontology. However, a very significant example occurred in 1964 with the finding of what became known as the ‘Aveley Elephants’.

The finder of the Aveley Elephants was a student at the time, undergoing his second year of ‘A’ level studies. His name was John Hesketh. The ‘Aveley Elephants’ were two late Pleistocene fossil elephant skeletons that were found virtually together and separated only by a vertical distance of about 30cm. They were identified as the skeletons of a woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) and a straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus). At the time, the find was considered to be of major palaeontological importance and, were it not for the lack of further scientific research (see below), it should also have proved to be of great scientific value in the study of the environmental and climate conditions when the animals were alive. It was a find that greatly exceeded any previous mammoth discoveries in this country and which, almost certainly, has never been equalled in connection with both the species found and the time period concerned.

Fig. 1. Until it was known that a ‘Brownie Box Camera’ had been used to take photos of the excavation, all photographs (such as this photo held at the Natural History Museum) were originally limited to those taken by officially sanctioned photographers. © The trustees of the NHM. London.

When a student, John Hesketh commuted to his study centre and his daily journey took him past a site that was of geological interest to him. As one of his ‘A’ level study subjects was geology, he could not resist the temptation to look for fossils. The geological deposit exposed was ‘London Clay’, which has been well known since the nineteenth century from its exposures on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.

Fig. 2. The Aveley Elephant remains are held at the Natural History Museum. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum London.

At the time, the site was owned by The Tunnel Portland Cement Company Ltd, a company that extracted clay for use in cement production. The site was to the west of the village of Aveley in the south of Essex and close to the A13 main trunk road. London Clay was originally extracted from a large pit at the site referred to as the ‘No.1 pit’. In time, a ‘No.2 pit’ was opened.

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Fig. 3. John Hesketh (left) viewing and discussing his find with Dr AJ Sutcliffe, from the Department of Palaeontology, British Museum (centre) and Mrs Shirley Coryndon, also from the Natural History Museum.

John’s fascination with finding fossils caused him to visit the site two or three times a week while commuting home from his studies and he gradually established a small collection of fossils from this Eocene clay exposure. When the No.2 pit was opened, this site was also investigated by John and company staff had become accustomed to his activities by then.

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Fig. 4. John Hesketh (left) showing the exposed bones to his father. Note the grid markings on the clay face behind them positioned to assist with stratigraphic interpretation of the site.

The clay extraction machine at the western end of the pit made a long cutting face with a slope of about 45 degrees and clay was only ever dug and removed from one end of this ‘cut’ at any time. The extraction machine would gradually creep along the top of the cut, removing clay as it did so, using a multi-bucket dragline assembly. At the end of one run, it would travel back in the opposite direction repeating the activities.

As time passed, John developed a technique of finding and collecting fossils as he walked around the clay extraction areas. However, the freshly exposed London Clay of the No.2. pit proved to be quite barren, but there came a time when John noticed that the extraction machine was passing through sediment that was not London Clay. As a result of John’s work, it now transpires that late Pleistocene (Ice Age), glacial melt-water rivers had cut channels into the London Clay that had become filled with ice age debris and deposits; and it was these deposits that were being exposed. His attention was further attracted when he started to find fragments of bone. Then he recovered a couple of horse teeth and, more significantly, a couple of articulated vertebrae. At first, it was thought that these were just the remains of some long-dead farm animal dating from medieval times. However, John was not so easily convinced. He then started to find some aquatic shell remains and, initially, he thought that he had stumbled across a site that had been located along a former course of the River Thames. (At the time, it was known that the River Thames had flowed along a route further to the north of its current course.)

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