Volunteers uncovered a rare find from the Essex foreshore. This image of a mammoth tusk was shared around the world on Twitter. But what became of the tusk? And what does its discovery mean? The team that ‘struck ivory’ speak exclusively to Wild Essex.
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There’s an army pillbox on the remote shore at East Mersea. It’s about 50 yards from the crumbling tree-lined cliffs.
At high water the tide covers the hut.
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A man is walking along the beach with his dog. He told me he lived in a caravan at Coopers Park for six months each summer. His main home is in Colchester.
He described it as a good arrangement. “Nice to be in town in the winter,” he said. “I can walk to get a pizza. You can’t do that here.”
I was looking for tiny shark teeth below the crumbling cliffs with a friend. We asked the man if he’d seen any teeth. He shook his head, and looked towards the pillbox. “I used to play in that as a child,” he said. “It was set back from the cliffs in the trees.”
We turned towards the cliffs and then back to the pillbox. “How did it get out there?” I said.
“It didn’t,” said the man. “That’s where it fell. The cliffs went way beyond here when I was a kid.”
Our south east coast suffers badly. Parts of Mersea are disappearing at a rate of 26ft (8 metres) a year, according to the Environment Agency.
Almost every month another cliff section collapses into the waves.
Not even the sea wall can contain the rising tides. This footpath is now closed to the public past Cooper’s Beach.
The government gave up protecting Mersea’s neighbouring island, Wallesea, from the tide in 2004. Almost 700 hectares (equal to more than 1,000 football pitches) will be submerged by 2020.
This Environment Agency map from 2008 details the Essex flood risk. Surrender is perhaps inevitable.
King Canute triumphed over the English army in Essex, at The Battle of Assandun. Canute famously demonstrated the tide is not for turning.
The ol’ boy could be ‘turning’ in his grave. An army of citizen archaeologists are doing something unexpected. They’re rewinding time… on the tide. And they’ve got a mammoth tusk to prove it.
For all the anxiety over flooding, and the loss of thousands of homes and closed footpaths, the tides wash away something else. Memories.
Archaeologists have a posh phrase for memories lost on the tide. They say, “Intertidal heritage.” I like that. The stuff being submerged includes everything from pillboxes and ancient henges to prehistoric settlements.
The good news? Volunteers are trying to find this ‘stuff’ before it sinks forever. It’s like an Atlantis recovery programme. These are the same people that found the Mersea mammoth.
They work under a collective known as the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network. Its an easy to remember acronym: CITiZAN. Local people are trained to become ‘tidal archeologists’. Citizens are recording their community’s history.
“Archaeology for the people,” said Mark Dixon (pictured left), one of the local members who found the tusk.
Volunteers download a free app, then go explore Essex rivers and beaches at low tide.
It was while recording an Iron Age track, about one mile off Mersea, that volunteers struck ivory on a clay and gravel-sand spit.
The area was not usually exposed to the air. Meanwhile, the seawater was still receding.
CITiZEN volunteers knew something was different. It was low tide, but the water was still going out. Like it does before a Tsunami.
The group had set out for a field walk of Mersea during an Equinoctial spring tide on March 30, 2017.
These unique events happen just twice a year when the earth, moon and sun line up.
What they hadn’t accounted for was high pressure combined with a south westerly wind pushing the water out even farther.
“It was like a window into deep time. It was almost like time travelling.”
CITiZAN project officer Stephanie Ostrich.
CITiZAN project leader Stephanie explained: “We had split up into groups to do some field walking to sweep the area.
“It was a low tide, but a special one. What we call an astronomical low. A spring low on the equinox. But this was particularly low.
“It was as if we’d travelled back in time to see what the landscape was like tens of thousands of years ago.
“And then we noticed it. We just couldn’t believe it. I was almost shell shocked. A mammoth tusk.
“It’s certainly the coolest thing I’ve ever found”
The tusk isn’t the first remarkable find at Mersea.
This Iron Age skull was found by island oysterman Daniel French while out dredging.
Locals think there’s much more out there.
The team took 3D photos (see below) of the tusk, recorded the location, and have sent it away for tests. Result are expected within six months.
Volunteers continue to survey and monitor the foreshore for more finds.
CITiZAN hopes the mammoth and skull finds will encourage more volunteers to join them.
Training events funded by Historic England will be held throughout the year to help locals map and explore more tidal areas in Essex.
Essex is definitely one of the best places to join the archaeologists. Not because it has the UK’s longest coastline. But because is has the lowest tidal range. I keep thinking of Canute.
“We’re interested in any areas that are intertidal; that are exposed at low tide and covered up by high tide,” said Stephanie.
“You have wide open mud flats, and then marshes so it’s quite interesting in Essex. Offshore fish and salt production has been important here for thousands of years.”
The team has already mapped and recorded the skeletal remains of Thames sailing barges at Maldon, and fish traps and Tudor forts at Mersea. But its volunteers have barely begun to uncover what else is exposed at low tide.
Whether it’s pillboxes or barge graveyards, there’s a treasure trove out there in the sand and mud. My friend and I are still looking for prehistoric sharks’ teeth.
To get involved with tidal archaeology, in Essex, or anywhere else in the UK, register for a CITiZAN newsletter or become a volunteer archaeologist by clicking this link.