Thirteen-year-old Archie Wood, his dad and granddad were all out for a walk on the beach at Bexhill-on-Sea, a pleasant resort town on the south coast of England, overlooking the English Channel. Archie had his new metal detector with him. However, what he found that day wasn’t metallic – and yet it was astonishing.
Archie had spotted a peculiar shape protruding from the beach. His granddad, Neil Wood, subsequently told the Bexhill-on-Sea Observer, “He was so excited, he couldn’t believe what he was digging up. He saw it sticking out the sand, he pulled out this enormous tusk.”
But Archie’s dad, who was doing a bit of fishing from the beach at Bexhill, wasn’t so sure that this find was anything special. In fact, he thought that it was just an old bit of rotting wood and advised his son to chuck it back in the sea.
But Archie was having none of that – he was determined to hang on to his discovery. And the story of his find then made its way into the local paper, with the tusk being identified as belonging to a pre-historic mammoth, which is a pretty exciting discovery in an English seaside town.
That wasn’t the end of the story, however. A few months later Archie and his family paid a visit to the Isle of Wight. That’s an island in the English Channel, just a short distance out to sea from the port city of Portsmouth.
In addition to its picturesque beauty, the Isle of Wight is well known for the large amount of fossils that its land yields. Indeed, it’s one of the most noted sites for dinosaur fossils in Europe. And this means that there are a number of facilities on the island that cater to visitors who have a fascination for fossils.
The Wood family had already dropped into one of the island’s museums, where they’d seen a specimen that they thought was just like the object that Archie had found months earlier. “They are big into fossils there,” Archie’s granddad recalled. “When we went into the museum, we saw identical fossils in a skull in a display cabinet, and we thought, ‘That’s it!’”
Their next port of call on the Isle of Wight was a well-known fossil shop called Jurassic Jim, located on the High Street in the town of Shanklin. They had a photo of Archie’s find with them, and hoped that Jurassic Jim himself would be able to tell them what Archie had found. With over 50 years of fossil collecting under his belt, his opinion was well worth having.
“Then we went to Jurassic Jim,” Archie’s granddad explained. “He looked at the photo and said, ‘That’s definitely a Bos bison.’” So their tusk was actually a horn, and its previous owner had been a bison, not a mammoth.
In fact, museum researchers were subsequently able to come up with a more specific identification. They told Archie that what he had was the horn of an aurochs. These massive undomesticated cattle once lived across Europe, North Africa and Asia.
In Europe the aurochs became extinct in the 17th century, with the last known specimen living in Poland’s Jaktorów Forest. Nonetheless, in a sense the aurochs does live on, since this was the species that provided the stock from which modern domesticated cattle were bred.
The Aurochs was still common in Europe in the Roman era some 2,000 years ago. The Romans, in fact, often used the unfortunate beasts for staged fights in their brutal arena entertainments. Eventually, however, due to over-hunting, the aurochs was pushed to the brink of extinction.
The last of the European aurochs survived in the eastern part of the continent. And their rarity meant that only wealthy aristocrats and royalty were allowed to hunt them. As we have seen, though, even this was enough to drive the magnificent species to extinction.
Archie’s ancient aurochs horn is most likely between 4,000 and 6,000 years old, from a time when the south of England was heavily forested. Speaking to MailOnline, Julian Porter of Bexhill Museum said, “It would have been a late Neolithic and early Bronze Age forest that certainly would have had aurochs charging around it.”
Porter also said that there had been a range of findings that indicated the existence of an ancient ecosystem in southern England. When the tide was out, he explained, it was still possible to see the remains of prehistoric trees dating back to around 5,000 years ago.
“It’s the sort of thing that we assumed was living in the forest, but we didn’t have hard evidence,” Porter continued, in reference to the aurochs. “We had found domestic horse remains, cattle bones, wolf bones and indeed human bones as well, which are quite tame in comparison to Archie’s find.”
But now Archie had a dilemma about his fantastic find. Jurassic Jim had told him that the horn was worth between $160 and $190. That’s really quite a lot of money for a 13-year-old boy, rather a tempting amount. But after wrestling with his conscience, Archie decided to do the right thing.
And his decision was to donate his find to Bexhill Museum, where it is now on display. Speaking to the Bexhill-on-Sea Observer, Porter said, “It’s a fantastic addition to the collection – it’s an aurochs, a species I’m very fond of, a giant wild cow or bison. It would have been an impressive animal.”
And Porter paid tribute to the public-spirited generosity of young Archie. “It really was so good of him to report it and bring it in so everyone can enjoy it,” he said. “Hopefully the love of history he has will stay with him.”
Archie’s dad thought that it was a plank of wood. Archie and just about everybody else believed for several months that it was the tusk of a woolly mammoth. But the mystery was finally solved when the “tusk” was identified as an aurochs’ horn. And if you’d like to see it, just drop into the Bexhill Museum in England.