The wildlife of the day today was thirteen and a half thousand years old. We sent the new first years to the Harris Museum in Preston as part of their induction week. There, among other cool stuff like most of the Bleasdale timber circle, their star archaeological exhibit is the Poulton Elk. An elk is the European name for the animal North Americans know as the moose, Alces alces. (Even more confusingly, an elk in North America is what Europeans call a red deer, Cervus elephus. Never let anyone tell you there is no point learning Linnaean species names…)
The students had to find one artefact on display for each archaeological period between the Paleolithic and the present day. The later answers turned up a nicely eclectic mix of things, ranging from fake Luftwaffe insignia for SOE agents to the silver shovel used to start the digging of Preston Docks. However, for the Paleolithic, it was unanimously the elk.
Horace the elk (I have no idea why he is called Horace) was found in the 1970s under a bungalow in Poulton-le-Fylde. Poulton itself is near the Lancashire coast, just outside Blackpool. In the Upper Paleolithic this whole area would probably have been a mixture of lakes, bogs and scrubby woodland. Elk, as a study of Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose shows, like to eat moss. They also like to chew the new growth off trees, so the Paleolithic Fylde would have been a great habitat for Horace. Students of Littlenose the Hunter will also recall that elk were important prey animals and the thing that makes the Poulton elk interesting to archaeologists is that he was obviously hunted.
Cutmarks on the legs of the elk were made by bone spear or harpoon points. However, there are no signs that the elk was subsequently butchered. Elk, when they are threatened, habitually make for water. They are strong swimmers and can use this to help them escape. So did Horace plunge into the water, like Thidwick, and swim his way to freedom. Sadly, probably not. He died the same day as the wounds on his legs were made. He probably got far enough into the lake that the pursuing hunters couldn’t retrieve his body before it sank but had been too badly injured to escape completely.
Happily for us however, he was then dug up to have a distinguished afterlife as the centrepiece of the Harris’s Discover Preston gallery. There is even a button which you can press, if you are an infant – or just as easily amused as I am, to make him roar.