Having recently made my second visit to the latest temporary exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London, I feel it is about time to post something about it. I very much doubt it will be my last either… these are the joys of NHM membership!
I initially entered the exhibition with caution – after all, this my most loved part of human history and the era I had chosen to spend the rest of my career researching in great detail, and I didn’t want to be disappointed. But I absolutely wasn’t…
The first part of the exhibit provides you with a basic introduction to the British Palaeolithic. A large moving map reminds you that you are stepping into a very different Britain to the one you are used to navigating today. Even the visiting Palaeolithic archaeologist needs a reminder of this after running through the busy London streets and navigating the London underground system. A short section devoted to the recent discovery at Happisburgh of the oldest fossil footprints outside Africa highlights that the British Palaeolithic record still has much to offer in comparison to the rich European record.
The exhibit has a wealth of interesting artefacts on display – flint tools, human remains, and animal bones – without being overwhelming and repetitive for the non-Palaeolithic geeks out there. A few interesting items to look out for include:
- One very large handaxe, which Palaeolithic archaeologists will recognise as the one classically pictured in descriptions of “sexy handaxe theory”. This is a huge handaxe which would be questionably practical, and has been suggested by some that this could be an attract a partner. See what you think.
- Some impressive pieces of portable art, which you will find on the reverse side of a cabinet next to human remains. It could be easily missed given it’s location, so make sure you keep an eye out for it!
- Take a look for a wooden spear and free standing replica. Labelled as “the oldest spear”, this is one of the oldest wooden spears in the world – pretty amazing that this has survived given that it is 400,000 years old!
- The oldest British burial, found in a Welsh cave in 1823.
- Reassembled Neanderthal tool waste. Yes, I know it looks like a bunch of broken rocks, but this actually shows how each individual flake was removed from a lump of flint by a hominid to create a tool. This has been painstakingly refitted back together – so if you ever wondered why archaeologists head to the pub at the end of the working day, this is why.
- And last but not least, tweet a photo of yourself with a Neanderthal (or a slightly scary looking Homo sapien, whichever you prefer…)
The final section looks at the genetic evidence, and features Alice Roberts, Bill Bailey, and a few other well known faces. All have had their genetic ancestry traced to reveal where their roots originally lie, as well as calculating how much Neanderthal DNA they have. While watching the video on the left, keep an eye on the display on the right hand side which will give you the interesting facts and figures. This section really made me want to test my genetic ancestry, which I have for some time been considering via 23andMe. (Should I ever get around to doing this, I will let you know ‘how Neanderthal’ I am!)
In summary, a big well done to the NHM for creating a truly fantastic exhibit. Whether you’re a novice or an archaeologist who has
survived studied this stuff for a long time, you should be able to get something out of this exhibit. For those just beginning to learn more about human origins, this is a great introduction to the Palaeolithic world on your doorstep and real artefacts to see up close (as well as some replicas to handle).
“Britain: One million years of the human history” is open at the Natural History Museum, London, until 28th September 2014. Book exhibition tickets online via the link below, but also make sure you check out the extra events happening such as “Are we part Neanderthal?” (24th April) and “Cannibalism: What’s all the fuss?” (25th April).