Mezhyrich

This is a drawing of a drum made 15,000 years ago from the skull of a mammoth, in what is now Ukraine.

Photograph of sketchbook page showing a pen and watercolour pencil illustration of a mammoth shull decorated with lines and dots
Illustration of mammoth-skull drum from Mezhyrich, Ukraine

There’s a small village in central Ukraine, where the Rosava and Ros rivers meet. From here the Ros flows east, joining the mighty Dnieper about 10km downstream.

Mezhyrich has a population of under a thousand. It is one among hundreds of villages in the province of Cherkasy Oblast, and I doubt if I would ever have heard of it if a local farmer hadn’t wanted a bigger cellar.

He started digging in 1965, and found he’d bitten off more than he could chew when he encountered the jawbone of a mammoth.

This is not, in itself, a remarkable discovery in the loess soils of central Ukraine. However, it soon became apparent that it was stacked, upside down, within another mammoth jaw. And another.

Excavations revealed circular walls, 5m in diameter, constructed entirely of interlocking mammoth jaws. Socketed into the tops of the low walls were dozens of tusks, arching up to form a roof and porch.

Image of a Mezhyrich hut from Dolní Věstonice museum. The mammoth drum is inside the porch.

The remains of at least 95 mammoths were represented, bones scavenged from carcasses and hauled miles to this spot. I don’t know if you’ve ever lifted mammoth bones. I have. They weigh a ton. Four of these structures have been found at Mezhyrich.

There are quite a few such sites in this part of the world, most dating to the later stages of the last Ice Age. Some are colossal, and show no sign of having been lived-in. But the Mezhyrich huts had hearths, and the detritus of everyday life: knapped flint; bone needles.

Mezhyrich lay within a huge area of Ice Age tundra known as the ‘mammoth steppe’. At its peak, this colossal biome stretched around the globe from Atlantic shore to Atlantic shore.

15,000 years ago, you could have walked from my door in the west of England to Mezhyrich without getting your feet wet or leaving the lush plains of herbs and grasses: home to the mammoth and the humans who followed them.

What makes Mezhyrich really special is the artefacts found within that first structure – among them objects carried hundreds of kilometres. Amber ornaments. An ivory plaque, inscribed with what’s thought to be a map.

Pen and watercolour pencil illustration of the Mezhyrich mammoth-skull drum
Pen and watercolour pencil illustration of the Mezhyrich mammoth-skull drum

And the mammoth-skull drum. It lay at the entrance to the hut. Battered surfaces spoke of frequent use. On the high forehead, there were enigmatic red ochre designs. There are various theories about what they mean: one is that they depict flames and sparks of a fire.

Flames. Sparks. What would those people say, to see this land on fire on an unimaginable scale? What would they — who had no need of national borders — make of one country’s desire to crush its neighbour underfoot?

Their world was changing, too. Did they know? The mammoth steppe was entering a long, slow decline. Within a few thousand years, the mammoths were gone.

Today, one of the structures is reconstructed in the National Museum of Natural History. Another was partly excavated in the 1970s. In the village, there’s a small sheet-metal barn; inside, a neat white picket fence; and inside that, you are stepping back 15 thousand years.

A 2018 summer school hosted excavators from Ukrainian and French universities. That year, we built our own little homage to the Ukrainian mammoth-bone huts in Worcester Museum. We filled it with blackboards for children to draw their own cave art. Books to fire their imaginations.

Children’s book corner in the style of a mammoth-bone hut, Worcester Museum Lost Landscapes exhibition 2018

I sat down inside and read to my son. I told him that 700 generations ago, children curled up with their families and told stories in huts like these, in a place called Ukraine. I told him I’d take him one day.

We have not made it to Mezhyrich. Not yet. But one fine summer’s day I hope to walk around the village, step into the little barn, and listen to the chatter of students as they bring the hubbub of voices and laughter back to the mammoth-bone hut.

I have been lost for words of late, to see this part of the world and its people— whose history is dear to my heart — suffering so terribly. And there seems little I can do.

But I can draw. So, if you like the Mezhyrich mammoth skull, I’ve put some designs in a Redbubble store: https://www.redbubble.com/people/robhedge/shop?asc=u.

Proceeds will go to the Red Cross through the DEC Ukraine Humanitarian appeal. If you’d like to make an offer for the original, message me through the contact form. Take care. Slava Ukraini.

Mammoth-skull drum against a blue sky and yellow steppe-grass background
Mammoth-skull drum against a blue sky and yellow steppe-grass background.

Links

The best English language online source for info on Mezhyrich is Don’s Maps, which has pictures of lots of reconstruction and artefacts: https://www.donsmaps.com/mammothcamp.html 

And for more on recent work there, see: http://vovkcenter.org.ua/en/mezhyrich/ 

Lost Landscapes

Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) Rob Hedge pencil sketch

Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius)

Every day thousands of motorists stop at Strensham Services, by Junction 8 of the M5 motorway in south Worcestershire. Few are aware that, 200,000 years ago, Strensham was the final stop for a very different traveller: a young adult female Woolly Mammoth, about 20-25 years old.

She came to drink from a shallow pool and died there, her remains settling into the soft mud. She was discovered by archaeologists during the construction of a water pumping station in July 1990, along with bones from at least five other mammoths and a red deer antler. Initially christened Marmaduke, she was swiftly renamed Millicent once she was found to be female.

Mammoths evoke images of icy wastes and snow-strewn plains, but the presence of cold-averse species of molluscs within the Strensham deposits tells us that Millicent lived in conditions similar to today’s British climate, during a warm period within Marine Isotope Stage 7 (243-191,000 years ago). The area around the Strensham pool was probably marshy meadow, surrounded by heath dotted with stands of trees. Millicent would have inhabited a landscape filled with a menagerie of other mammals: from familiar faces such as wolves, foxes and wild boar, to the more exotic woolly rhinoceros, cave lion, bison, and the fearsome cave hyaena.

Millicent the mammoth is just one example from half a million years of Palaeolithic prehistory in the region. Over the next 18 months, I’ll be working on a project to tell these stories. We’ll examine what they teach us about where we’ve come from and how our landscapes were shaped. We’ll also be looking at how our understanding of deep time was shaped by early discoveries, and asking questions about how we define ourselves as a species. Look out for more at explorethepast.co.uk and researchworcestershire.wordpress.com soon.