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Geology Site Account

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Sandy Lane Pit (site of), AVELEY, Thurrock District, TQ553808, Potential Local Geological Site

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Site category: Interglacial deposit

Site name: Sandy Lane Pit (site of) (site of the Aveley elephants)

Grid reference: TQ 553 807

Brief description of site:

On the north side of Sandy Lane, west of Kennington Park, is the famous Sandy Lane Clay Pit where, in August 1964, the remains of a mammoth and a juvenile straight-tusked elephant were discovered in Ice Age deposits channelled into the London Clay. The discovery received considerable publicity in the national press. The fossils are now in the Natural History Museum, London. The precise location of the find was at TQ 5531 8081.

Attempts to conserve part of the Sandy Lane Pit (also known as Aveley No. 2 pit) as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) unfortunately failed as planning consent for landfill had already been granted. The pit has therefore now been infilled. However there may be some undug land on the edges of the pit that could provide scope for future investigation.


The Aveley Elephants

The story began on 27th July 1964 when a young local amateur geologist named John Hesketh, after several previous visits to the site, noticed part of a mammoth skeleton protruding from the sloping sides of the pit. He notified geologists from the Natural History Museum in London who carried out an excavation lasting three weeks, during which a museum volunteer camped overnight at the site as a precaution against vandalism and theft. The excavation received thousands of visitors, and staff from the Tunnel Portland Cement Company (owners of the pit) were said to have given up their spare time to control the crowds and keep the queue of people moving across the specially constructed observation platform. There was even an ice cream vendor to take advantage of the attraction! In addition to articles in most National newspapers the excava-tion was also filmed by the BBC.

The mammoth skeleton, some of the bones of the straight-tusked elephant, and about 40 centimetres of sediment beneath them were removed from the site in two wooden crates to be transported to the Natural History Museum for preparation and eventual public display. Together with the mammoth from Ilford they formed a spectacular exhibit in the museum’s Fossil Mammal Gallery from 1970 until 1990. Investigation of the site continued for some time afterwards, which led to part of a further mammoth being found in October 1964 and a further straight-tusked elephant skeleton between February and July 1965. These finds are now also in the Natural History Museum. A party from the Geologists’ Association visited the site in May 1965 (Blezard 1966).

Fossils found with the skeletons clearly indicated that the elephants were living during an interglacial period but the exact age of the sediments has long been the subject of controversy. For some time the interglacial was considered to be the Ipswichian interglacial stage (about 120,000 years old) based on fossil pollen. However, recent research based on the fossil molluscs, beetles and mammals in the sediments has favoured an older date and they are now attributed to the penultimate interglacial (Marine Isotope Stage 7) and therefore about 200,000 years old. In recognition of this site this interglacial stage is now informally known as the ‘Aveley Interglacial’. Rather surprisingly, the discovery has never been the subject of a formal scientific paper but the site and its deposits were later extensively described in Bridgland (1994) and Sutcliffe (1995).

The bones of the Aveley elephants being prepared for transport out of the pit prior to their journey to the Natural History Museum in London. Photo © G.R. Ward


Aveley elephants 2
Aveley elephants 2
Aveley elephants 1
Aveley elephants 1

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Reference: Blezard 1966, Bridgland 1994 (p. 251-262), Bridgland et al. 2003, Sutcliffe 1995.

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