John Hesketh and the finding of the ‘Aveley Elephants’

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Bob Williams (UK)

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’.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Fig. 2. 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.

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.)

He took the bone and tooth remains to the Natural History Museum in London and it was here that they were confirmed as being fossils dating from the Ice Age. Additionally, the articulated vertebrae were identified as having been part of a red deer skeleton. They caused a stir of interest and he left the museum advising staff that he would keep in touch about the progress of his work at the site and any finds that he made there. Not surprisingly, he left the museum feeling extremely enthusiastic about his efforts.

Fig. 3. 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 shell referred to above was to boost that enthusiasm even more. It was identified as being the remains of a species named Corbicula flumenalis, a species of bivalve that is not found in the UK and had not occurred there since before the last advance of the ice. It provided John with evidence that the deposits he had found were worthy of further investigation and that they probably dated from the latest interglacial period – the Ipswichian period – when the climate was warmer in this country than it is today. He then began to search the area around where he had found the shell a little more carefully and this paid off when he found the first of the elephant remains: a clearly recognisable fragment of mammoth molar tooth.

On 27 July 1964, his excitement increased as other, more substantial material came to light, including what were subsequently identified as a tibia leg bone and a remarkably intact pelvis assembly. At this point, John called a halt to his activities. As promised, he notified the Natural History Museum of his finds who came to investigate the site and, as a result, decided to organise what was designated as ‘an official recovery’ – the recovery of what appeared to be an almost intact mammoth skeleton. This part of the find alone was hailed as the most significant find of any mammoth remains that had occurred in this country in the twentieth century. However, this was just the beginning.

Fig. 4. John Hesketh (left) and Shirley Coryndon working on the exposed tusks of the mammoth.

One of the museum staff, Dr Tony Sutcliffe, who attended the site, was the head of the fossil mammal section. As the find was now considered to be of such importance, the decision was made to make an announcement about the find to the public through the national media. This was done on 8 August 1964 and this was the date that subsequently became recognised as the ‘discovery date’ (rather than the ‘true’ date of 27 July 1964) and the find made headlines in many newspapers around the country.

As the excavation proceeded, much skeletal material began to be found and it was decided that a vertical dig into the clay should be made. This would uncover the skeletal debris from above, enabling records and documentation of the find to be made with greater accuracy and precision. A vertical dig of about 5m was made through the clay and the extracted clay was used to construct a shelf on the adjacent sloping clay face in front of the excavation. This was then used as a work platform, workspace at the excavation site being at a premium.

Fig. 5. A sled-type crate assembly containing part of the exhibit being moved up the sloping sidewall of the quarry by a team from the Natural History Museum.

In the end, it became necessary to start tidying up the work area to display clearly what had been uncovered. Loose clay debris had to be removed from the general area and working faces had to be ‘smartened up’ a bit so that the recovery site could be more easily sketch-mapped, illustrated and photographed. As this was being done, John’s mother (who had attended the site out of curiosity about what her son had found) engaged Dr Sutcliffe in conversation.

Given all the other skeletal remains that were being found (including horse, ox, hippo and rhino), she said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we found another skeleton here”. Apparently, Dr Sutcliffe replied that it would never happen on the grounds that it was vanishingly improbable that more than one skeleton of the type would ever get found at the same place at the same time.

Mrs Hesketh then picked up a broom and walked across to a corner of the site and started to sweep away some loose clay debris. With about the third stroke of the broom, she swept some clay away from the surface of what was obviously a large bone fragment. She called John over and more clay was easily removed. The clay digger had left just a bare millimetre or two of clay covering this artefact and had left it undamaged as it passed over. The item proved to be the intact, lower jaw of a straight-tusked elephant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus. It was lying about 30cm below the peat layer that contained the mammoth skeleton.

Fig. 6. (Top left) A museum worker excavating skeletal debris at the site. The mammoth pelvic assembly and associated spinal debris (including vertebrae) is to the left of its head, with tusk material below its legs, and leg bones at the bottom-centre of the image. (Top right) Museum workers loading recovered material into the specially built ‘sled-tray’ constructed for removal of bulk material up the excavation slope of the main pit. (Bottom left) Further bones and (Bottom right) a toothed lower jaw bone (mandible) from a wild ox (Bos sp) lying adjacent to a mammoth tusk (right) before removal from the sediment.

It follows that technically, it was John’s mother who discovered the straight-tusked elephant skeleton and her son, John, who discovered the mammoth skeleton. And with the second find, an almost intact elephant skeleton was revealed, effectively doubling the workload of the scientists at the site. Amajor palaeontological find had now turned into a unique palaeontological find, the like of which has not been matched since.

The discovery now got featured as prominent headline news in many major newspapers and on television. The headlines were not restricted to the UK, either. They appeared on a global basis, being featured on the European mainland, and also in America and Australia. In the UK, the find was given a special feature on one of the very first programmes to be broadcast on, what was then, a new TV channel, BBC 2. It was for this programme that the expression “Aveley Elephants” was apparently created and the name has stuck ever since.

Fig. 7. Media coverage of the find resulted in significant public interest in the event. A special viewing area had to be organised to cater for the crowds who attended the scene to observe the recovery process in action.

The Tunnel Portland Cement Company, from whose land the recovery was made, proved very willing to assist in any way it could. In fact, it built a viewing platform from which the public could watch the excavation. The clay extraction operations were delayed and disrupted periodically for perhaps three months in total, but the publicity that the find brought to the company was favourable and greatly appreciated. However, John’s presence at the scene finally came to an end when a (probably good-natured) request from a company employee was put to him that, following nearly three months of disruption to usual company activities, he might pay a little less interest and attention to pieces of bone that he might see lying around the excavation areas. They were just bits of bone, after all.

Fig. 8. Museum staff encasing recovered material with Plaster of Paris jackets and loading prepared material into the ‘bulk recovery’ sled ready for final removal from the excavation site.

The addition of the second skeleton inspired very detailed examination of the surrounding deposits, down to a microscopic level. All aspects of the associated faunal remains were recorded, from the largest of the bones down to microscopic shell remains of the planktonic life that had existed in the waters that buried the elephants. In fact, about 40 insect genera were originally found at the site. Plant remains were also recorded, the most important being the pollen specimens from which a date relating to Zone F of the Ipswichian age of the Pleistocene era was calculated.

Although the two elephant skeletons were found with only about 30cm in vertical distance separating them, the amount of time that had occurred between the deaths of these creatures could have been considerable, perhaps as much as 100,000 years. It should be remembered that, as Blezard (1964) noted, the sequence of any river deposits can be complicated by the fact that “the deposits of one episode may channel into the deposits of an earlier episode creating a sandwich of non-sequences”.

Blezard goes on to write that, “Although at the time of writing this record … no specialist reports have appeared concerning this site, there can be no doubt that investigations will provide increased knowledge concerning the last interglacial in southeast Essex”, and that the discovery site was, therefore, very important. However, it does not appear that any specialist reports have, in fact, ever been published about the discovery, which is both a shame and a surprise.

As the recovery proceeded, John gave thought as to how details of the finds should be presented to the public. He decided that he, as finder, should write something of note on the skeletons and, because he was the finder, he had the knowledge and ability to do so. Eventually, he decided that he would write an article to be published in the Essex Naturalist magazine. With assistance from many sources, he set about creating the article, which was simply intended to be an introductory article announcing and preceding any forthcoming official publications. The Essex Naturalist approved the end product and copies of the script were circulated to various referees for final approval and correction. Among the referee list, of course, was the Natural History Museum, the museum having been party to the recovery of the skeletons.

However, John’s efforts received a blow when one of the referees declared that publication of any article by him about the find should not be entertained on the grounds of his “amateur” status and that the find was considered to be “too scientifically important” to be written about by “an amateur with no professional ability”. It does not take much imagination to envisage how John must have felt on becoming aware of this. The museum declared that official, ‘professional’ reports would follow in time. However, 50 years later, nothing appears to have so far been published.

John was repeatedly asked to attend meetings and gatherings around the country to speak about his experience and he was glad to oblige, wherever possible. However, he had no artefacts left in his possession to display in any of his talks. The Natural History Museum had been very thorough in its efforts to collect as many of the fossil remains from the site as possible.

However, before notifying the museum of his find, John, being unaware of its importance, had taken a considerable quantity of material home, where it was housed on the garden lawn and on the floor of his sister’s bedroom (his sister being in Australia at the time). It was always his intention to pass these remains on to the museum to join those that were recovered from the excavation site, but the museum seized them from him as part of the recovery that they had now taken ownership of.

Consequently, John was left with nothing that he could use to exhibit in any talks that he was invited to give. As a result, John approached the museum to ‘borrow’ some of the bones that hehad found, but encountered further unexpected problems. It appears that the museum was concerned that an amateur, with no scientific experience, could not be trusted to handle any material from such a major scientific find However, after many months of persuasion, John finally obtained the mammoth tooth that he had first spotted and also a limited selection of other small bone material. At least now, he had something that he could display in any talks that he gave.

As expected, the skeletons went on display to the public in a special gallery constructed at the Natural History Museum. In a departure from the usual museum practice of fully reassembling and mounting recovered skeletal remains, because the remains were insufficiently well preserved, it was decided that those of the mammoth would be displayed just as they were found on a platform of the sediment from which they were recovered, with some of the bones of the straight-tusked elephant positioned below and around it. It was thought that this would present a more interesting exhibit, when combined with an appropriate explanation. The display ran for 20 years from 1970 until 1990.

Regrettably, John’s name was only featured in a rather insignificant piece of the informative text that accompanied the exhibit and the clear implication was that ownership of the bones lay with the museum (notwithstanding who the finder was). Unfortunately, the ‘Aveley Elephant’ exhibit has now been removed.

In my opinion, the world owes a great debt of gratitude to John and his mother for the discoveries of the skeletons and for the scientific knowledge that was subsequently gained. It is a bit of a shame that neither he nor his mother have received the due acknowledgment that his and her discoveries should merit.

The in situ block with the mammoth skeleton was put away when the old Fossil Mammal Gallery closed in 1990, but went back on display with the From the Beginning Gallery in 1997 and has been on full public display ever since. It also received a facelift and currently looks splendid. In this way, John Hesketh is clear evidence of the benefits that amateurs can bring to palaeontology.

Fig. 9. The Aveley Elephant remains are held at the Natural History Museum. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.
Photographs – Graham Ward
I met Graham Ward, who told me that he had managed to get into the original excavation site, with his ‘Box Brownie’ camera. Although not authorised to do so, Graham presented himself with the air of an ‘official photographer’ and proceeded to take a number of photographs of the final recovery process, as the skeletons were removed by the Natural History Museum. Although the original prints are now somewhat faded and a bit battered, they are reproduced here and represent a personal record of a major event in scientific history.

This article has been put together in memory of John Hesketh, the original finder of the ‘Aveley Elephants’, who succumbed to cancer in April 2011. It is hoped that it will bring John the credit he truly deserves for making such an historic palaeontological find that created so much attention, both publicly and scientifically. He is survived by his wife Janet, from whom many of the pictures accompanying this article have been obtained. Having been among John’s own private records made at the time of the find, they have never been shown to the public before.


Blezard. R.G. 1966, Field meeting at Aveley and West Thurrock. Proceedings of the Geological Association. 77(2): 273-276.

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