Archaeology PhD student reassembles and interprets baby hyaena skeleton for major new exhibition at Weston Park Museum

The hyaena skeleton in the exhibition

Image courtesy of Cresswell Heritage Trust and Museums Sheffield

Jane Ford, currently undertaking a PhD in Archaeology at Sheffield, has reassembled and interpreted a very young hyaena skeleton which is a key feature in a new temporary exhibition, entitled ‘Life on the Edge: Ice Age Frontier’, recently opened at Sheffield’s Weston Park Museum.

The exhibition is a partnership between the Museum and Creswell Heritage Trust. It explores the human occupation of Britain during the period between 50,000 – 10,000 years ago. During this time Creswell Crags, approximately 20 miles from Sheffield, was one of the northernmost places in England which humans (both Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans) inhabited, and the caves there have a wealth of archaeological artefacts which attest to this. However, humans were not the only inhabitants. Spotted hyaenas were also using the caves during this time and they were quite possibly in direct competition with the humans for the various prey species also present which included woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and reindeer.

Jane is currently studying and recording the material from four of the Creswell Crags caves as part of her PhD research in which she is studying the predatory behaviour of Pleistocene spotted hyaenas in Britain and how this may have been affected by competition with humans.

Jane’s research has found that the faunal remains recorded so far indicate that the spotted hyaena was by far the most common predator, and there are also numerous remains of hyaenas from other caves in the vicinity of the Creswell gorge. She was able to reassemble the very young hyaena skeleton which is now the centrepiece of the ‘Life on the Edge’ exhibition, allowing the skeleton to be put on public display for the very first time. Other exhibits in the exhibition include remains of bear, lion, woolly rhinoceros and reindeer from Creswell Crags as well as a pair of mammoth tusks from the museum collection.

The majority of the hyaena remains at Cresswell Crags are teeth, although various other skeletal elements are also present, with ages ranging from juvenile to old adult. The presence of juvenile remains in particular indicates that the caves were used for denning as the deciduous teeth were not just isolated finds – a number of them are still embedded in either the maxilla or mandible suggesting that the young hyaenas died in the caves. The most compelling evidence for denning came during excavations in Pin Hole Cave in 1984 when the almost complete articulated skeleton of a juvenile hyaena was discovered. It is extremely rare to find such a complete juvenile specimen despite the numerous sites and extensive remains of Pleistocene spotted hyaenas found throughout much of Europe.

‘Life on the Edge: Ice Age Frontier’ will run until 20th September 2015 at Weston Park Museum. For further information please visit Weston Park Museum's website.