A piece of the oldest amber ever found in Britain

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London Crossrail fossil finds on display at Museum

Archaeologists working on Crossrail have donated to the Museum a piece of 55-million-year-old amber and a woolly mammoth jawbone fragment unearthed in London.

Work on Crossrail, London's upcoming rail network, has uncovered more than 10,000 objects buried underneath the city.

Two of them are now on display in the Museum's Lasting Impressions gallery. Found at Crossrail's Canary Wharf site, they are part of a vast and diverse set of specimens that have been dug up during the railway's construction.

The amber, which is fossilised tree resin, has the potential to reveal new insights into what the environment was like 55 million years ago.

Claire Mellish, Curator of Fossil Arthropods, says, 'This is the oldest amber found in London, several million years older than any other specimen.

'Amber is rare in the type of sediments in which this piece was found. It is very unusual to find amber anywhere in the UK, except pieces that are washed up by the sea on our eastern shores.

'It is usually very difficult to find out exactly which plant the amber formed from but we may find out whether it is from a conifer or flowering tree.

'It is a beautiful specimen to see up-close, as the light refracts through the bubbles inside it.'

A treasure trove underneath London

Work started on Crossrail seven years ago, and 26 miles of tunnels are being built for new train lines running through the centre of London. The thousands of archaeological specimens found could provide fascinating insights into London's history and prehistory.

So far, a team of archaeologists have come across finds including medieval plague victims, a Bronze Age transport pathway and Roman skulls.

The fragment of woolly mammoth jawbone found in Canary Wharf

The fragment of woolly mammoth jawbone found in Canary Wharf


At Canary Wharf, a piece of amber was found in the middle of a bore hole, about 16 metres below sea level.

It is unusually clear but has lots of fracture lines.  

A small fragment has been sent to a laboratory for analysis. Museum scientists are waiting for the results, to compare them with other sorts of amber.

They are also examining it to check for any tiny trapped insects or other animals stuck inside.

It could help scientists find out more about the plants and animals in the area at the time it was formed. 

Woolly mammoths below the city

A fragment of woolly mammoth jawbone was found at the same Canary Wharf site.

Professor Adrian Lister, a Museum palaeobiologist, says it is likely the mammal died during the last ice age, which spanned from about 100,000 to 12,000 years ago.

Lister says, 'We have several hundred mammoth specimens from the UK in the Museum collection.

'Although it seems amazing, it is actually quite common to find bones from mammoths underneath London.'

Gigantic mammoth bones have been discovered all over London, including in Ilford, Peckham, and the Thames basin.

Gas bubbles are trapped inside the ancient amber

Gas bubbles are trapped inside the ancient amber


Tens of thousands of years ago, ice sheets enclosed northern Britain. Woolly mammoths lived in the lush grasslands that covered the area where London now sprawls.  

Scientists anticipate that there are still plenty more fossilised specimens to be found, by archaeologists and amateurs alike.

Fossil Explorer app

Keen fossil hunters can use the Museum's Fossil Explorer app to explore ancient animals buried underneath their feet.

As a field guide to the common fossils of Britain, it will help users identify fossils based on where they find them.

It uses geolocation technology and data from the Museum and British Geological Survey to provide lists of fossils that could be found in locations in England, Wales and Scotland. Information prepared by Museum palaeontologists and illustrations will help with fossil specimen identification.

Professor Ian Owens, Director of Science at the Museum, hopes the app will encourage budding citizen scientists around the country.

He says, 'We aim to inspire a new generation of explorers and get people thinking differently about the natural world. This app unlocks the Museum’s vault of data, making it accessible to all.

'As the app develops, we plan for people to later be able to send back to us information about their fossils finds, actively contributing to current scientific research.'