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Our ancient Britons are all yours

Posted by Rose Feb 18, 2014

After a week of full-on media attention and VIP events, our Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story exhibition is open to the public. Its first few days of opening for the February school holidays has seen it bustling with visitors.

 

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Comedian Bill Bailey and the Museum's Emily Smith celebrate the opening of our Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story exhibition at the VIP event last week. Bailey is one of six well-known figures to have their genetic ancestry traced for a film that features in the last part of the exhibition.

 

The exhibition is full of amazing archaeological finds, all beautifully displayed against spectacular backdrops, and here are a few pictured below you shouldn't miss.

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Seeing is believing: they may not look like much but these cones of pine and spruce date back to more than 800,000 years ago. They're from Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast and would have greeted the first human pioneers to Britain.

 

Standing in the presence of some of Britain's earliest human remains and artefacts in our dramatic story of evolution, surrounded by the animals these early ancestors pursued for survival and the tools they used to eek out their existence, it's hard to not be awestruck.

 

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The Swanscombe skull. This skull belongs to an early Neanderthal woman and is about 400,000 years old. She could have been the earliest Neanderthal in Britain.

 

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Trafalgar Square jaw-droppers: a hippopotamus canine from 125,000 years ago that was uncovered in 1960. This remarkable find is displayed next to other animal fossils and specimens against a stunning backdrop of a modern-day Trafalgar Square.

 

But it's not only the ancient treasures that grab your attention. Some of the show stoppers are in fact the products of very modern humans, such as the specially commissioned models of a Neanderthal and Homo sapiens made by twin Dutch artists, the Kennis brothers, along with several ground-breaking short films made by our excellent Museum film unit. Featured footage includes the big discovery of ancient human footprints on the Norfolk coast - the oldest to have been discovered outside of Africa - and the exhibition's final film tracing the genetic ancestry of famous names like Bill Bailey and Dr Alice Roberts.

 

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The exhibition's public face: Ned the Neanderthal, so named by you in an Evening Standard competition, is undeniably an attention-grabber in the exhibition's central room. Ned stands near to the other life-size model of a Homo sapiens. Both are incredibly life-like and offer visitors the chance to compare and contrast the two species.

 

Also look out for and take hold of the touch objects in the gallery, including flints, human skull casts and more.

 

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Touch obects: compare the head casts of the four human species thought to have lived in Britain in the past million years and featured at the start of your exhibition journey.

 

We will be adding more films and a great prize draw to the exhibition website soon, so check back in the next few weeks.

 

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Neanderthal woman in pieces

Posted by Rose Feb 11, 2014

She's 400,000 years old and her faceless skull is now mounted in an elegant display case in readiness for the Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story exhibition opening at the Museum on 13 February.

 

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Could this 400,000-year-old skull, belonging to an early Neanderthal woman, be one of the first Neanderthals in Britain? The skull is one of more than 120 specimens and objects on show in the Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story exhibition.

 

The early Neanderthal woman's skull was found in Swanscombe, Kent and, despite its age, it reveals a great deal. Her brain left its mark on the surrounding bone. Faint impressions of folds and blood vessels show it was a similar size as a human's brain today.

 

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The back of the Swanscombe skull has characteristic Neanderthal features, including a small pit where the neck muscles attached to the skull.

 

You'll see this striking specimen assembled as one exhibit in the exhibition, but look closely and you'll discover it actually comprises three parts.

 

Observing Museum curator, Rob Kruszynski, steadily hold the three skull pieces together at a recent photo shoot we attended, I listened intently as he recounted how remarkably well they fit together. Especially when you consider that they were found at different times in Swanscombe.

 

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The central skull section (occipital) was found in June 1935 in Swanscombe, Kent, by a local dentist A. T. Marston. The left part (parietal) was found at Swanscombe in March 1936 also by Marston. And the right parietal was found years later in 1955, by archaeologists J. Wymer and A. Gibson. Select images to enlarge.

 

Being so close to this ancient woman's skull and watching Rob handle it so carefully, I found myself wondering who she was and what her life must have been like? Did she die alone or with her family around her? We don't know as much as we would like about Neanderthal lifestyles because nothing was written down, but we do know that they sometimes buried their dead, that it's likely they did have some form of communication and that they lived together in family groups.

 

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This graphic reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman model appears in the exhibition. © PS Plailly/E Daynes/Science Photo Library

 

'There is analysis going on now on a large family group of possibly 12 Neanderthal individuals discovered in a cave site near to El Sidrón in Spain's Asturias,' Rob tells me. 'All had been cannibalised. And evidence suggests there were six adults (three males and one female), three adolescents between 12 and 15 years of age, two juveniles between five and nine years of age, and one infant, and that they were related.

 

'As of 2012, over 1,800 Neanderthal fossil remains and 400 tools have been recovered at El Sidrón, making it one of the largest collections of Neanderthal fossils in Europe to date.'

 

These El Sidrón finds are nowhere near as old as our Swanscombe skull, as they only date back to about 42,000 to 50,000 years, but they have been invaluable in revealing the Neanderthal's own story.

 

Our scientists and archaeologists continue to unravel more about our prehistoric ancestors with such amazing discoveries about the men, women, children, animals and objects they uncover and analyse.

 

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Homo arrivus

Posted by Rose Jan 13, 2014

The arrival of two naked male models at the Museum just before Christmas, unsurprisingly, caused a stir among staff. Cameras to hand, a few in the know caught some early glimpses as our unclad guests were bustled in at dusk. Now we release official photographs of them and a film about their brief yet prehistoric beginnings as the publicity revs up for the show they will appear in.

 

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Meet the Neanderthal (1m 55cm, in his 20s, European origin) and Homo sapiens (1m 75cm, in his 50s, European origin) stars of Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story. These life-size models were created by Dutch artists Alfons and Adrie Kennis. Homo sapiens stands taller, the darker-skinned male who chews a tool used to adorn his body with ink. Select images to enlarge.

 

The models were made by the Dutch duo, Alfons and Adrie Kennis, in their studio in the Netherlands for our next major exhibition, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, opening here on 13 February.

 

The Kennis brothers specialise in creating scientifically accurate sculptures of ancient humans and animals. The specially commissioned models blend scientific and aesthetic interpretation uniquely. They pose proudly, faces full of character - and some speculation as to which famous personalities might have been the inspiration - and are sure to attract attention when they take pride of place in the exhibition gallery.

 

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Adrie (left) and Alfons (right) Kennis in their studio, creating our two ancient men of silicon. Watch the short film of their work in progress below.

 

 

 

Our male models will share the limelight in the exhibition with striking graphic recreations of Neanderthal women and children and Homo sapiens family members, amidst more than 200 rare and intriguing archaeological specimens and objects. The story of our beginnings and how we have become what we are today, is one that touches us all.

 

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Graphic of a Neanderthal child reconstruction. Few Neanderthals lived beyond their late 20s. © PS Plailly/E Daynes/Science Photo Library

 

Elin Simonsson, the exhibition's interpretation manager, gives us the latest on its progress:

 

'Opening is only a month away and the exhibition build is now nearly complete. Walls are up and painted, cases and graphics are in place and our two life-size models are now in the gallery, wrapped up and waiting to be revealed. This week we will start the installation of specimens and objects in their display cases, which will really bring the whole exhibition together.'

 

For one lucky person, there's a chance to win a pair of free exhibition tickets and an exhibition book by entering our free prize draw online.

 

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