A Moredon couple has made one of the most extraordinary archaeological finds in history when they discovered preserved fossils of mammoth in a quarry to the north of the town. 

Neville and Sally Hollingworth, part-time fossil hunters, immediately realised the magnitude of their find and called in archaeologists from DigVentures as reinforcements - who soon unearthed five ice-age mammoths in an extraordinary state of preservation. 

The couple's find was so remarkable that David Attenborough and evolutionary biologist professor Ben Garrod will be presenting a BBC One documentary on it - Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard - which will air on December 30. 

Swindon Advertiser: Neville and Sally HollingworthNeville and Sally Hollingworth

On top of the mammoths themselves - two adults, two juveniles and an infant that are thought to be 220,000 years old, they have also found giant elks, tiny creatures like dung beetles and snails and even seeds, pollen and plant fossils, as well as human tools like an axe.

Ben Garrod told the Observer: “This is one of the most important discoveries in British palaeontology.” While the odd mammoth bone often turns up, he said, finding such complete skeletons is “incredibly rare”.
“Where these mammoths lie in the ground is exactly where they died a quarter of a million years ago – next to incredible things like stone tools and the snails they trampled underfoot.

“We have evidence of what the landscape was like. We know what plants were growing there. The little things are really revealing the context of these big, iconic giants. It’s a glimpse back in time. That’s incredibly important in terms of us understanding how climate change especially impacts environments, ecosystems and species.”

Swindon Advertiser: Sir David Attenborough and Professor Ben GarrodSir David Attenborough and Professor Ben Garrod

Also talking to the Observer, Lisa Westcott Wilkins of DigVentures, an archaeology social enterprise, said: “Exciting doesn’t cover it. Other mammoths have been found in the UK but not in this state of preservation. They’re in near-pristine condition. You can’t take it in.”

She added: “Archaeological sites from this period are rare, and critical for understanding Neanderthal behaviour across Britain and Europe. Why did so many mammoths die here? Could Neanderthals have killed them? What can they tell us about life in ice-age Britain? The range of evidence at this site gives us a unique chance to address these questions.”

Sally and Neville had to hand the site over to DigVentures when the magnitude of what they found became apparent, they took part in the show alongside Sir David Attenborough but are yet to see it themselves and learn the outcome of their discovery. 

The programme will look at clues left by the fossils and see if they tell us anything about how our Neanderthal ancestors lived in the harsh conditions of ice-age Britain, a period of prehistory about which little is known.

Swindon Advertiser: Close inspection of excavated bones Picture: DigVenturesClose inspection of excavated bones Picture: DigVentures

Garrod said there are a number of theories: “Was there a massive glacial flood that washed these poor animals down? By looking at the mud, it doesn’t look like there was. It’s very uniform all the way down.

"Were they hunted by people? Were Neanderthals crouching down in the rushes and chasing them into the water? Possibly. There is definitely an association between a wonderful hand-axe and other stone tools and these bones. Did they chance upon this bunch of dead mammoths and have a mammoth buffet?

“Or was it just really muddy? With elephants today, if a juvenile gets stuck, often the adults won’t leave the site. They’ll try and help them. This is very thick mud. I’ve grown up near the seaside, near estuaries; you don’t need to be very heavy to get stuck in mud very quickly.”

DigVentures is a team of archaeologists that also runs community outreach. After raising funds from Historic England they are coordinating the dig at the site and hope to continue excavations. The quarry is currently protected by natural flooding. 

Westcott Wilkins praised the Hills Group, the quarry owners, for their co-operation: “There are also early discussions about wanting to build a public outreach centre where we can display some of the finds.” 

“People are whizzing by, not realising that feet underneath their car is this scene. It’s very surreal. We’re all still trying to get our heads around what we found.”

For ordinary people this find would be once in a lifetime, but for Neville and Sally it's just another day at the office.

Neville found a preserved ice-age mammoth skull in a gravel pit at Cotswold Water Park in 2004 - only the second to be discovered in Britain. 

The pair also made an incredible discovery of rare marine fossils - called crinoids -  during the second lockdown at a site also near Swindon. They were recently on Blue Peter because of it.