Geology museums of Britain: The Museum of London

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Jon Trevelyan (UK)

In Issue 60 of Deposits, I restarted my occasional series on UK geological museum with a visit to the Booth Museum in Brighton (see Geology museums of Britain: The Booth Museum of Natural History, Brighton). Having more time on my hands than I would like during the Covid-19 lockdown, I got to thinking about a recent visit I made to the Museum of London in the Barbican in the City of London.

I expect that most people would not link this excellent museum to anything geological, but they would be wrong. In fact, there are many exhibits from the prehistory of the capital and these include fossils of animals that lived in the region and stone tools from our ancient ancestors, who shared the area (Figs. 1 and 2).

Fig. 1. A somewhat demonic looking auroch (Bos primigenius), which is an extinct species of large, wild cattle. These were domestic during the Neolithic Revolution, such that modern breeds share characteristics of the aurochs.
Fig. 2. Flint tools found at Swanscombe.

In fact, the museum’s oldest items date back to when London was tundra and the local population would fit into one of its iconic double-decker buses. During these times, there were several different species of humans occupying the Thames Valley, firstly as hunter gatherers and only later creating fixed settlements.

Human and animal species roamed the open steppe-tundra, until their final disappearance about 30,000 years ago; and Neanderthal groups probably shared the valley with modern humans. And 200,000 years ago, herds of mammoth would have been a common sight and surely would have formed part of both the diet of our early ancestors and be material for tools (Figs. 3 and 4).

Fig. 3. The foot of a mammoth.
Fig. 4. A woolly rhinoceros skull.

Of particular note is the ‘Mammoth of Ilford’, whose jaw (Fig. 5) was discovered in Uphall Pit, near Ilford and is on display at the museum. At this site, to the west of London, about 100 mammoth bones were unearthed, along with the remains of the giant deer, Megaloceros, with three-meter-wide antlers (also known as the Irish or Giant Elk).

Fig. 5. The Mammoth of Ilford – the jaw is the lower jawbone of a middle-aged adult woolly mammoth, with un-erupted teeth at the back. Behind it is a tusk from an individual who was probably quite young when it died.

In fact, the River Thames was undoubtedly central to the lives of the peoples and fauna that lived besides its banks. Therefore, if you want to learn about the prehistory of London, there are a couple of galleries here that are well worth visiting. My understanding that some time in the not too distant future, the Museum of London will move to West Smithfield to the east of the City. And I can’t wait to see if the extra space allows the museum’s curators to display more of this fascinating aspect of the capital.

Fig. 6. A cave bear skull.
Getting there
Address: 150 London Wall, Barbican, London EC2Y 5HN The museum’s entrance is located on a pedestrian high walk which can be reached by stairs, escalators or lifts from Aldersgate Street; London Wall or St Martin’s-le-Grand.
Nearest tube stations: Barbican and St Paul’s (both about 5 minutes walk).
Nearest train stations: Liverpool Street, Farringdon and Cannon Street (with step-free access street to train).
Buses: 4, 8, 25, 56, 100, 172, 242, 388 and 521
By bicycle: Cycle racks at the junction of Noble Street and London Wall. There is a Santander docking station beneath the Museum on the roundabout on London Wall.
The other articles in this series consist of:
Geology museums of Britain: Whitby Museum, Yorkshire
Geology museums of Britain: The Booth Museum of Natural History, Brighton
Geology museums of Britain: The Museum of London
Geology museums of Britain: The National Stone Centre, Derbyshire

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