A new museum in Northern Greece: the Siatista Historical Paleontological Collection, the first record of a stegodon in Europe and the making of the straight-tusked elephant.

The Historical Palaeontological Collection of Siatista (HPCS), housed in a school building in Siatista, Kozani, Macedonia in Greece, was studied by the authors during the summer of 2009. The collection was assembled by local people from 1902 onwards, under the initiative of Nikolaos Diamantopoulos. Anastasios Danas, a high school teacher at the Trampantzeion Gymnasium in Siatista, was the main collector and he founded the Siatista’s palaeontological collection in 1906. The recovered records of the collection are minimal and it is not always clear from which locality the fossils were collected. However, the archived documents indicate that all the fossils were collected in the larger region of Siatista.

Replica of the Pleistocene straight-tusked elephant, Elephas antiquus, the eyecatcher of the Siatista Museum

In 1972, Prof Ioannis Melentis, famous for his studies and publications on the fossil proboscideans of Greece, realised the importance of the collection and, in 1980, he became involved in the study and management of the collection, which was officially donated to the community of Siatista in 1994. The first exhibition was held in the Trampantzeion in 1982. In 2011, the collection was put on display in this beautiful building in Siatista, which was built in 1888. In a short time, it became one of the attractions of Siatista, telling the story of the large pachyderms that once roamed the northern parts of Greece.

Former Mayor of Siatista, Mr Kostas Kosmidis, with scale models (1 : 10) of extinct proboscideans, which once roamed the area around Siatista.

The exhibition of fossil proboscidean fossils from the HPCS is open to the public. A team of experts from the Aristotle University, Thessaloniki in Greece and from the Mammuthus Club International in The Netherlands started working in Siatista on the collections some years ago. These scientists are very active in the field of fossil proboscideans and have, along with others, have done a great deal of work on the mastodons that have been excavated since 1996 in the sand deposits of the Aliakmon River. For example, in a sandpit in Milia (see The Mastodon of Milia, in Issue 19 of Deposits), they unearthed the tusks of a very large mastodon, Mammut borsoni. These tusks have a length of over 5m, which is a Guinness World Record.

Geology students of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, remains of the old collection.

Four years ago, the team came to Siatista to take some measurements of the molars of mastodons, elephants and mammoths, which are kept in the HPCS. The team became very enthusiastic about these important fossils and, in 2009, they decided to continue their work on them, making the collection available for scientific studies and to develop a new display. Kostas Kosmidis, the former mayor of Siatista, initiated a new exhibition room in the restored Trampantzeion building. Evangelia Tsoukala and Dick Mol then developed an attractive plan for a new display the go-ahead was given by the community council in December 2009.
The team of experts, including designers, artists, photographers and technicians, has developed a beautiful story from the information gained from the fossils, which can tell us so much about our geological past. The new exhibition, which was officially opened by the mayor of Voio – Panagiota Orphanidou – along with scientists on the evening of Thursday, 18 August 2011, is a great success.
The exhibition not only shows these lovely fossils in wonderful display cabinets produced by the Goudras brothers of Siatista, but also displays art work by professional artists illustrating how these extinct animals looked, based on the fossils from the surrounding area. Among others, a huge scale model (1 : 3.5) of an extinct straight-tusked elephant (Elephas antiquus) is a real eye-catcher in the colourful exhibition. Another beautiful display in the exhibition is a panorama picture, measuring more than 4m wide, of Siatista in its mountain setting, which once was the realm of mammoths, mastodons and elephants.

Identification of the proboscidean remains of the Siatista Historical Palaeontological Collection.

Therefore, at the new museum, visitors can learn about palaeontology, about fossils and about climate change during the time that real giants were roaming the area of Siatista, millions of years ago. And here, they can travel back in time to learn about our geological past, on a living planet.

Thessaloniki, with members of the team, preserving.

The collection contains more than 56 remains of Pliocene and Pleistocene proboscideans, including the mastodon of Auvergne, Anancus arvernensis, the southern mammoth, Mammuthus meridionalis, and the straight-tusked elephant, Elephas antiquus. All the material has been re-identified and catalogued by the authors, under the code SIA (SIAtista). One of the most interesting items in the collection is a fragment of a lower m3 molar of a stegodon, Stegodon sp., catalogued as SIA 22. However, the collection is dominated by the remains of the straight-tusked elephant, Elephas antiquus.

Mr Kostas Kosmidis inspecting the team working on the collection of fossils.

The fragment of the molar represents two unworn molar ridges from approximately the middle of a right lower molar, with eight conelets in the anterior and seven in the posterior ridge. The maximum width of the specimen is 83mm, measured from the base of the anterior ridge, and the maximum height is 53mm. The width at the base of the ridges is 31mm and 30mm – both measurements taken at the lingual side. The valley between the two ridges is not filled with cementum (a calcified substance covering the root of a tooth), which often covers the lingual and buccal edges. We unpacked the broken specimen from an old box in 2009 and measured the thickness of enamel to be 7mm.

Unfortunately, there are no data on the locality, date or who collected the specimen. Neither is there any information on its geological age. However, since the state of preservation, the weight of the specimen and its coloration are the same as all the other proboscidean fossils in the Siatista Collection, we have no doubt that this specimen is from the larger region of Siatista. According to the historical documents, we would also like to emphasise that there are only fossils from the Siatista area in this collection.
The molar fragment has been compared by the authors with the abundant material of Southeast Asian stegodons in the Dubois Collection at the National Natural History Museum, Naturalis in Leiden, the Netherlands. However, the identification to the stegodon species level has not yet been made. Hooijer (1960) has described a fragment of a molar of a stegodon from the Middle Pleistocene of Israel as a new species of stegodon- Stegodon mediterraneus. Therefore, a comparative study of the Greek specimen with that of Israel is necessary.

The spectacular discovery of the first stegodon in Europe (a molar).

In 2010, the Siatista stegodon was presented at the ‘International Conference on Mammoths and their Relatives’ in Le Puy-en-Velay in France. An abstract on the first evidence of the presence of stegodon in Europe was published in the Volume of Abstracts of this international conference. The specimen SIA 22 is now on display in the exhibition and, surprisingly, in 2011 more fragments of the same molar were discovered in some boxes at the school building. In the near future, we hope that more remains of stegodons will be discovered in situ in the area of Siatista. One of the important facts about the Siatista stegodon is that its presence increases the known distribution area of stegodons outside Southeast Asia, Africa and Israel.

Reconstruction of the head of a stegodon by Remie Bakker
Reconstructions of the head of a stegodon.

Experts are able to identify fossils quickly, based on their morphology and by the shape of a molar, they can quickly recognise the type of food the animal must have preferred, which gives a clue to the type of biotope they must have lived in. This is often very clear to experts, but how to convey those notions to lay persons? For the display in Siatista, we decided to show the public at least what the trunk-bearing animals (Proboscideans) of the past must have looked like. To that end, we made scale models based on anatomical reconstructions of skeletons. Two mastodon species, several mammoth species and the straight-tusked elephant are displayed in a large glass showcase, where the visitor can observe the differences in sizes and shapes at a glance. Indeed, there is a considerable difference in shapes of the bodies, heads and tusks, which are the clear speciality of these trunk-bearing animals.
However, these models are only on a scale of 1 : 10, which is not the most spectacular of sizes. Therefore, to enhance the attractiveness of the exhibition, a larger scale model of the straight-tusked elephant was needed, at a ratio of 1 : 3.5. This job was given to Remie Bakker, a Dutch artist and sculptor, who has specialised in making naturalistic replicas of prehistoric animals from the Pleistocene. This model was designed to be the centrepiece of the exhibition.

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The straight-tusked elephant, scale 1 : 3.5, for a photo shoot in the back garden.

Remie crafted the replica of the sturdily-built behemoth in his studio in Rotterdam. He first made a steel skeleton – called an armature – and applied clay onto that for the basic shape and, after that, he applied a second layer for the details. The sculpture has a height of 101cm and a length of 130cm, and required a total of 140kg of clay. After the model had been completely shaped and after final approval of the paleontological supervisors, it was used to make a mould.
From this, two casts were made, which were modified and fine-tuned down to the smallest detail. Then, they were painted in natural colours. After the attachment of eyelashes and a nice tuft of hair at the tip of the tail, we were looking at a ‘real’ forest elephant, scaled down obviously, but still very impressive. One of these models was shipped from The Netherlands to Siatista in a special crate. Currently, it sits in a prominent position in the exhibition as the focal point.

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No detail during the sculpting process is overlooked (front feet).

The name ‘straight-tusked’ obviously describes the elephant’s tusks. However, in Germany and The Netherlands, the species is called the ‘forest elephant’, referring to its natural habitat. The ancestors of this animal may have inhabited Africa. The American palaeontologist, Vincent Maglio, published a taxonomical revision of the Elephantidae in 1973 and ‘assigned’ the East African, Elephas recki, from the Early Pleistocene epoch as its direct ancestor. It is unknown when the first straight-tusked elephants migrated from Africa into ‘the old world’. The oldest known fossils are from Isernia La Pineta in Italy, having an age of about 700,000 years. At the peak of its dispersion, its range included all of Southern Europe as far north as Denmark and Poland. The finds from Northwest Europe are virtually all from the last interglacial, the Eemian, between 127,000 and 110,000 years ago. Therefore, it was assumed that the species died out at the end of the last interglacial. However, recent finds in The Netherlands have radiocarbon dates from around 50,000 BP.

The straight-tusked elephant was a sturdy animal. The complete skeletons found in Europe suggest a shoulder height of more than three meters. The tusks of males could attain gigantic proportions – they pointed downwards and slightly outwards at the base, and from there they curved slightly upwards. The molars are relatively high-crowned and slender. The strongly folded enamel pattern of the lamellae is typically diamond-shaped in a horizontal cross section and it is also thicker than that of mammoths. And, unlike mammoths, there was no evolutionary change in the molars, suggesting no changes in diet. Therefore, this elephant was a browser of leaves and twigs for the entirety of its existence.
Previously, two nearly complete skeletons were found on top of each other in Eemian deposits, close to Aveley in England. The lower one was a straight-tusked elephant, while the upper was a woolly mammoth. The stratification was far from clear, so it could not be determined if both animals had been contemporary in the same fauna. However, some of the best remains of the straight-tusked elephant ever recovered are those from Neumark-Nord in Germany. Over a period of many years, an immense amount of fossil mammal remains have been exhumed from 200,000 year-old clay deposits in a lignite mine there. The collection is housed in the museum of Halle. While it includes relics, single bones and molars, it also contains nearly complete skeletons of straight-tusked elephants, Elephas antiquus, and a large quantity of skeletons of the fallow deer, Dama dama, which is typical for an interglacial period. These large mammals probably died on the shores of a lake. The clay deposits of this 200,000-year-old lake were an ideal material to preserve the vestiges of the former biotope. The archaeologists and palaeontologists, who carried out the excavations, were not only on the lookout for the macrofossils (especially large mammals), but also were looking for small fossil remains. As a result, no detail has escaped from the excavators’ scrutiny – fish, plant remains, land and freshwater molluscs, and insects, have all been uncovered and secured for research. Evidence that humans were also part of that biotope has been found. We consider the finds from Neumark-Nord to be the best available for reconstructing the lost world of straight-tusked elephants.

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Remie Bakker, the sculptor of the team, working on the model in scale 1 : 3.5.
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The artist working with tools on the model.

The team has been very successful in reaching their goal under extreme conditions, like the busy program and high summer temperatures. The exhibition in Siatista was able to open its doors on 18 August 2011 and it was very crowded that evening in the Trampantzeion. Over 250 people showed up at the opening ceremony – some locals from Siatista, others from further away. Remie demonstrated how he shaped the models with clay while working closely with scientists to get the best results for reconstructing prehistoric animals. Then, he and colleagues organised a workshop for the children, so that everybody could make their own mammoth. This unique experience for Greece was appreciated very much by the large group attending the grand opening. And since Siatista is well known for its fur industry, Dick Mol, a key-player in the exhibition plans, provided very rare fossil remains of furs to the HPCS. These have been put on display and include the fur of a woolly mammoth, some 24.000 years old. This was excavated by Dick in 1999 in the permafrost of Northern Siberia in Russia. It completes the story in the exhibition of where the mammoths originated some five million years ago.
The exhibition is very attractive. It tells the story of giants, like mammoths, mastodons and elephants, which once roamed the area around Siatista from 3,000,000 to about 100,000 years ago. Not only on display are the fossils, which have been collected during the last 100 years in the area of Siatista, but also high quality and well-illustrated panels telling their story. If you visit Northern Greece and are in the area of Grevena or Kozani, you must stop in Siatista, which is a wonderful, clean and historic town with traditional beautiful houses and churches. And it is also the home of the permanent exhibition on the HPCS , which we think you will thoroughly enjoy visiting.

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The elephant is beginning to get its shape in clay.

Further reading

BONTAS G., 1986. The Paleontological collection of Siatista. Booklet in Greek language, 7 pp., Thessaloniki.
DERMITZAKIS, M. & G. THEODOROU, 1980. Map of the main fossiliferous localities of Proboscidea in Aegean area. Eds Laboratory of Geology and Paleontology, University of Athens (in Greek).
DERMITZAKIS M., N. SYMEONIDIS, L.E.M. BOER, de & P.Y. SONDAAR 1986: The evolution of the elephants. – Edit. Lab. of Geology & Paleontology, Univ. of Athens, A 44: 1-85; Athens. (In Greek).
DOUKAS, C. S. & A. ATHANASSIOU, 2003. Review of the Pliocene and Pleistocene Proboscidea (Mammalia) from Greece. In: “J. W. F. Reumer, J. de Vos & D. Mol (eds.): Advances in Mammoth Research”. Deinsea, 9: 97-110.
MELENTIS J. 1966: Studien über fossile Vertebraten Gricehenlands: 16. Die Pleistozäne Säugetierfauna des Beckens von Haliakmon (Griechenland).- Annales Géologiques des Pays Hellèniques, 17: 247-266; Athens.
MOL, D. & F. LACOMBAT, 2010. Mammouths & Mastodontes de Haute-Loire / Mammoths and Mastodons of Haute-Loire. Jeanne d’Arc Editions, Le Puy-en-Velay.
MOL, D. & TSOUKALA, E., 2010. The Milia mastodon, Mammut borsoni (Grevena, Macedonia, Greece). Quaternaire, Hors série, (3): 82-84.
MOL, D., TSOUKALA, E. & BATSI A., 2010. A Stegodon from the area of Siatista (Kozani, Macedonia, Greece), the first evidence of the presence of Stegodon in Europe. Quaternaire, Hors série, (3): 85-87.
MITZOPOULOS M.K. 1967: Über das Vorkommen von Archidiskodon meridionalis archaicus im Becken von Ptolemais (Griechisch-Mazedonien). Annales Géologiques des Pays Hellèniques 18(1): 463-470 Athens.
STEENSMA, K.J. 1988. Plio-Pleistozäne Groβsäugetiere (Mammalia) aus dem Becken von Kastoria/Grevena, südlich von Neapolis-NW-Griechenland. Dissertation, Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlichen Fakultät der Technischen Universität Clausthal, 1-315.
TSOUKALA, E. & MOL, D., with collaboration: Koukousioura, O., Lazaridis, G., Pappa, Sp., Tsekoura, K., Logchem, W. v., Vlachos, E., Makridis, V., Bacharidis, N., Labretsa, D., 2010. The Milia Mammut borsoni (Grevena, Macedonia, Greece): Excavation and display of the longest tusks in the world. Quaternaire, Hors série, (3): 90-92.
TSOUKALA, E., MOL, D., PAPPA, S., VLACHOS, E., LOGCHEM, W. V., VAXEVANOPOULOS, M. & REUMER J., 2011. Elephas antiquus in Greece: New finds and a reappraisal of older material (Mammalia, Proboscidea, Elephantidae). Quaternary International, 245: 339-349
VELITZELOS E. & H. SCHNEIDER 1983: Beiträge zur Geologie West Mazedonien I. Elephantiden Reste aus dem Pleistozän der Provinz Florina. Annales Mus. Goulandris, 1: 251-256, Athens.

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