It’s a late summer evening in 2007 and Archy Lee is having dinner with some friends, one of whom is his research colleague, Mary Hykel Hunt.
They’re sitting in the conservatory, looking out onto the garden at the back of the bungalow perched high up over-looking the A30 and the Otter Valley. Everyone’s relaxed after a good meal. Conversation winds in and out around various topics. Suddenly, Archy cuts through the talk, saying, “There’s a woman out there in the garden, under the tree. Dressed in skins.”
Inevitably, conversation stops dead. His friends are used to this. They wait. Archy is looking at someone the rest of them can’t see. And he’s listening. Listening to someone that the rest of them can’t hear.
“She’s smiling at me,” he says. “She seems pleased that I can see her.” Silence, as Archy stares out through the glass panes.
“She’s a lot younger than she looks,” he goes on. “Her skin’s really wrinkled, weathered, and her hair’s wild and grey, but I’m guessing she can’t be much above 20, maybe even younger. She’s had a tough life – a real struggle to survive.”
He looks sympathetic. “What’s happening?” someone prompts. His friends know how to push for information when Archy’s connecting with someone from the past.
“She’s telling me how hard her life was round here,” says Archy. “It wasn’t anything like it is now. The land was different and the climate was different. It was hot and humid, and there were animals around – lots of animals.”
He pauses, clearly listening intently. “It used to be very open land here – grassland – but right round here, it was very marshy. And she’s telling me about the animals. Lots of different kinds, and some of them were big and scary. She keeps telling me about one in particular. She calls it the beast with two tails.”
The friends round the table are puzzled. What does she mean, a beast with two tails? Does she mean a mammoth?
“No,” says Archy slowly. “No, not a mammoth. It didn’t have the long coat that mammoths had. She just says it looked as though it had two curved tails, one back, one front. But she’s smiling as she says it, so I think it’s some kind of a joke.” Archy chuckles, and then adds musingly, “She’s lost a few teeth …
Are you sure it’s not a mammoth, says the friend, not convinced. If we’re talking prehistoric, then surely it’s bound to be a mammoth.
Archy pauses again, listening hard. “She’s definite about it not being a mammoth. What she’s showing me looks more like an ordinary elephant to me.”
Another pause, and then he goes on, “She says these animals used to be round here – not far from where we are right now. Maybe some kind of watering hole? Anyway, she seems to be losing interest now - maybe because you don’t seem to believe her.”
The woman in skins appears to recede back to her own time, and the few moments of connection with the past are over. The friends remain sceptical. Elephants just aren’t likely. Archy shrugs, and then says, “Any chance of another coffee?” and 21st century life rolls on.
Some years later, Archy’s colleague Mary Hykel Hunt picked up the threads of this story, following a conversation with a Honiton local, who referred to some unusual animal bones that had been discovered back in the mid 1960s, when the Honiton bypass was being constructed. These bones were those of 17 individuals, including deer, giant ox, hippos – and elephants.
Hippos and elephants? In South West England? Excitement and scepticism warring, Mary started investigating. Her research revealed some interesting facts. Tests had revealed that the various bones uncovered by the road works were about 100,000 years old, dating them to the Ice Age, when even places as far south as North Devon were covered by an ice sheet. Not the most likely habitat for hippos and elephants, you’d have thought.
However, during this time, the Ice Age was repeatedly interrupted by warmer periods known as ‘interglacials’, when temperatures were higher, causing glaciers to melt and large rivers and humid wetlands to develop as the ice sheet retreated.
During these interglacials, animals from what is now Southern Europe and beyond were able to migrate across land that was not yet submerged below the seas, attracted to the food- and water-rich lands of what is now South West England. The dating of the bones placed them during an interglacial period known as the Ipswichian 1, when the climate of the area would have been more like that which we now associate with parts of Africa. And, as these bones revealed, they included animals such as giant ox, hippos – and elephants. Elephants. In what was to become Honiton, millennia later. Archy’s prehistoric contact had been right.
On top of this, the remains had been found at what was thought to be a watering hole. The location of this watering hole was at what is now the junction of a slip road with the A30 – a site approximately half a mile from the garden where the Woman in Skins had made herself known to Archy that warm summer’s evening in 2007, and told him all about the Beast with two Tails.
“Mammal remains from 17 individuals included Hippopotamus amphibious (which earned the site its name of the “Honiton Hippo Site”), Palaeoloxodon antiquus (elephant), Cervus elaphus (giant red deer) and Bos primigenius (ox). Pollen was analysed from samples of peat taken from both inside the animal bones and surrounding them. Sparse tree pollen from a range of species was present, with a high representation of herb pollen. The interpretation of the
local environment based on the plant and mammal remains was of a rich marsh flora and grass landscape,occupied by grazing herbivores. It is now commonly attributed to the OIS 5e Ipswichian interglacial (for instance Edwards and Scrivener 1999).
The Archaeology of South West England, (2007), Webster C J (ed), Somerset County Council, p.50
2. Photograph of Bone Sample
Oxygen Isotope Stage : 5e Original Location : Honiton By-pass, Devon, England Identification : Elephant Tibia Identifier : Date Collected : 1965 Present Location : Honiton Museum
Recorded from store by H. Pearman and J. Wilmut 12/7/05