During the Ice Age, woolly mammoths roamed across vast territories, covering Europe, northern Asia and North America. Two pieces of tusk in our collection show that some woolly mammoths made their home in Scotland, while another provides early evidence of mammoths in North America. And can you help us solve the mystery of the disappearing tusk?

Wolly Mammoth tusks in our collections

This piece of tusk shown below was found on 1 July 1820 by workmen digging the Union Canal on the Cliftonhall Estate to the west of Edinburgh. Originally it weighed almost 12 kg and was almost a metre long. Against the wishes of the estate owner, Sir Alexander Maitland Gibson, the workmen sold it in Edinburgh for £2 for carving.  By the time Gibson had discovered what had happened, the tusk had been cut into three pieces, two of which were recovered. It was donated to the Free Church College by 1822.

In 1966 the Free Church College Museum was closed and many important specimens came to National Museums Scotland. However, the mammoth tusk had disappeared. It was discovered in 1998 by Hilary Kirkland of the City of Edinburgh Education Department and donated to National Museums Scotland. The tusk had been cut in half, but we don’t know where the missing piece is. If anybody knows, please can you contact Dr Andrew Kitchener, 0131 247 4240, a.kitchener@nms.ac.uk

We took a sample form the tusk and had it radiocarbon dated. This revealed that this woolly mammoth died on what is now Cliftonhall Estate about 29,000 years ago. 

Woolly mammoth tusk from Cliftonhall, West Lothian.

In Ayrshire

The piece of tusk below was discovered in January 1817 by Robert Brown at Greenhill Quarry, Kilmaurs, Ayrshire under 17 and a half feet (5.25 metres) of clay. It was cut in two by the Earl of Eglinton; one part was kept at Eglinton Castle and the other half was donated to the College Museum of the University of Edinburgh. In 1915 the Eglinton Castle piece shown here was donated in 1915 by the Earl of Eglinton to the Royal Scottish Museum, the forerunner of National Museums Scotland. Several other pieces of mammoth tusk were discovered in quarries at Kilmaurs during the early 19th century. Radiocarbon dating has revealed that the tusk is around 27,000 years old.

Woolly mammoth tusk from Greenhill Quarry, Kilmaurs, Ayrshire.

HMS Blossom in Alaska

The two large woolly mammoth tusks pictured below were discovered by Captain Frederick William Beechey, who led a polar expedition from 1825 to 1828 on HMS Blossom to explore the Bering Strait between Asia and North America. The tusks were found in September 1826 in a cliff of frozen mud at Elephant Point in Eschscholtz Bay, Alaska. They are among the first remains of woolly mammoth recorded from North America. One of the tusks was recently radiocarbon dated and found to be 46,600 years old.

Above: Two woolly mammoth tusks from Alaska. 

Main image: Illustration by Velizar Simeonovski © The Field Museum.

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