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Cambridgeshire motorway upgrade uncovers remains of a woolly mammoth and a woolly rhino

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Darren Hickman and Bill Boismier with the finds. Picture: Keith Heppell
Darren Hickman and Bill Boismier with the finds. Picture: Keith Heppell

The remains of a woolly mammoth dating back to the ice age are among the latest remarkable finds from the team working on the £1.5billion A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon upgrade.

Highways England experts, working alongside archaeologists from MOLA Headland Infrastructure, discovered the partial remains of a woolly mammoth and woolly rhino – both at least 100,000 years old – during excavations for construction materials near Fenstanton in what was once an ancient river.

They are the most recently unearthed artefacts in a series of finds – two were only dug up on Thursday (October 18) – from the team building the new road, due to open in December 2020. Other remarkable discoveries have included Iron Age settlements, Roman pottery kilns, three Anglo-Saxon villages and a deserted medieval village.

Highways England cultural heritage team leader for the A14, Dr Steve Sherlock, said: “These discoveries are just the latest in a line of amazing finds that the team has unearthed since this work began at the end of 2016.

“All of these finds are testament to the rich history of the region, and in particular this local area around the A14 in Cambridgeshire.”

Dr Bill Boismier, consultant palaeolithic archaeologist for MOLA Headland Infrastructure, told the Cambridge Independent that the finds were “just fantastic”, noting that one of the woolly rhino fossils was a “near-complete” skull.

“We’re going to be starting a major programme of environmental sampling to better understand the environment the animals lived in – what was before it and what was after it,” he said.

Dr Boismier continued: “You’ve got sedimentary evidence of frozen ground – it was all permafrost at one time. There were no people around, just a basic Ice Age environment.”

The discovery was bigger and better than what some experts had imagined prior to the excavation. “These finds got left behind while everything else floated further downstream,” explained Dr Boismier. “There was gravelly sand laid down by the river and these were in the middle of it.”

It is hoped that more discoveries will be made as the project continues – a project which has not been delayed in any way by the discoveries, according to Tony Walsh, project manager for MOLA Headland Infrastructure.

On the rarity of the discovery, Dr Boismier said: “Mammoth skulls you don’t really find because they’re honeycombed – they’re all light and hollow.

“So when you actually find one, they’re usually in little bits and pieces, which sometimes you can put together. Most of the time you can’t because they’ve all been crushed by the sediments.”

Both the woolly mammoth and woolly rhino were alive during the last Ice Age, the Pleistocene Epoch, which began about 2.6 million years ago and ended around 9,700 BC.

This period was a time where the climate oscillated between cold glacial conditions with vast glaciers and warm temperate interglacial environments with animals such as hippopotami foraging along the banks of the River Thames.

Mammoths and woolly rhinos adapted to life on the cold grasslands lying south of the glaciers. They were covered by thick fur and layers of body fat to protect them from the bitter cold. Both animals fed mainly on low-lying grasses and other herbs.

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