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Walton foreshore interglacial site, WALTON-ON-THE-NAZE, Tendring District, TM260223, Historical site only
Site category: Interglacial deposit
Temporary exposures of fossiliferous deposits on the foreshore. Possibly the source of the earliest accounts of Ice Age fossils in Britain.
The occurrence of fossil bones of large mammals at Walton has been recognised for a very long time and there are records that such bones were often attributed to giants. Elephant bones and teeth from Walton were the subject of the earliest recorded reference to fossils in Essex; Camden’s Britannia, first published in 1610, refers to the bones of ‘giants’ being found in the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. In fact, the town of Walton may claim the earliest historical record for the discovery of Ice Age fossil mammals in Britain.
The majority of the bones, however, were collected in the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1803 an account was published of the discovery, following a cliff fall, of an enormous animal which measured 30 feet, with bones 6 or 7 feet in length. About this time Walton was visited by James Parkinson (1755-1824), a London doctor who first described the disorder of the nervous system now known as Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson acquired a very large collection of fossils and played an important role in the development of palaeontology with his three-volume work Organic Remains of a Former World published between 1804 and 1811. He was also a founder member of the Geological Society of London, which was formed in 1807. Parkinson listed and described the fossils he obtained from Walton, which included the bones of rhinoceros, elephant and hippopotamus, found by digging in the clay on the beach. Parkinson was a friend of Henry Menish, a Chelmsford doctor, who also obtained several fossils from Walton. The auction catalogue of Menish’s collection, published in 1810, included “a most singularly astonishing tusk and bones of an elephant found in the separation of a rock at Walton on the Naze” and a “matchless specimen of the tusk of a stupendous elephant, in fine preservation”.
The eminent Essex geologist John Brown of Stanway collected bones from Walton in the 1830s. His specimens were examined by the famous Victorian palaeontologist and zoologist Richard Owen, who described and illustrated several of the bones and teeth including part of the lower jaw of a hyaena, which was the first record of this creature from Essex. Almost 150 years later, in 1979, the fossils from these deposits were reviewed and modern techniques used to identify the species present. The animals represented included straight-tusked elephant, mammoth, narrow-nosed rhinoceros, hippopotamus, hyaena, ox or bison, giant deer, red deer, and horse. The presence of hippo is characteristic of the Ipswichian interglacial stage, which means that these fossils are 120,000 years old.
The precise location of these discoveries is unclear. The assemblage of mammals looks mixed, and may come from more than one stratum or more than one locality. However from the written accounts there is no doubt that they came from the erosion of a low cliff of clay and from a bed of clay exposed on the foreshore, and that this was about one mile south of the Naze cliffs. The supply of fossils appears to have dried up in the 1850s, perhaps because of the construction of sea defences, and in the 1970s and 1980s this site was known as Walton’s ‘lost interglacial site’. However, all that changed in 1995 with the construction of the new East Terrace Breakwater (TM 260 223). During this work more than twenty large bones were found, including two elephant teeth. It would appear that the deposit containing the bones is still present, but covered by a thick deposit of beach sand. The fossils found in 1995 are on display in the Walton Heritage Centre housed in the Old Life Boat House - close to the site of the discovery.
Bones from this deposit are in several other museums around the country including Colchester, Saffron Walden and Manchester. Unfortunately, some of Parkinson’s collection from Walton was donated to the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, which was destroyed during the Blitz.
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Reference: George 1997d, George 2015.
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