View from the shop floor

This week Polly Redman, currently based at Buxton Museum working on Inspired Collections Retailing, looks at a museum exhibit from a different angle.


OK I’ll admit it: when I visit a museum, one of the things I look forward to most is the gift shop. Sometimes I’ll rush through the exhibitions wondering what treasures I could find at the end. A lovely card with that painting I really liked or a uniquely produced item that will remind me of my visit. On occasions I will spend more time in the shop than in the museum itself.

My name is Polly and I will be working with Buxton Museum on its retail offer and the shop. My life at the museum is all about playing shop and is very retail focused. So when I was asked, for a text writing workshop, to take my attention away from the shop and venture into the actual exhibitions and find an object to write about I had a minor panic attack. I decided I would not cheat or take the easy way out and pick something from the shop; hey, those things are objects too! But I would try to find an object from the exhibition that I could link to the shop. To prove that what we have in the exhibition is important enough to sell, give visitors something great to take home with them to remember their visit by and do a bit of cheeky advertising too.

The object(s) I picked for the workshop are from a selection of Ice Age remains titled ‘Adapt, Migrate or Die’ which sounds quite intense and had my attention straight away!

I found out that in 1901 some unique remains were discovered in a small cave near Dove Holes. They tell a story of animals living in these areas about one million years ago, mind-blowing I know, when they were faced with a battle for survival as plants alone were not sufficient to sustain their lives.

Among the remains were the bones of now long extinct beasts such as the Mastodon and Sabre Tooth Tigers. And it begged for the question; how and why did these bones end up in the cave? I bet Sir William Boyd-Dawkins, who presented this collection to the museum, could just picture the scene; the scene of the carnivore and its prey…


A ferocious Sabre-Tooth Tiger creeping slowly towards a family of Mastodons and stalking his prey. Keeping low to the ground, circling in as closely as possible, sometimes pausing and hoping his cunning partner is distracting the baby Mastodons huge parents enough for it to move away and a bit closer. Raising and lowering his head the Sabre-Tooth judges the distance and angle to then suddenly spring from its cover and mortally wound the young Mastodon calf with its seven inch curved saber-shaped canine teeth dragging it back to the cave for his own family to feed from and survive another day in the harsh Peak climate.


This fantastical scene and the magnificent Sabre-toothed beast takes me right back to our lovely shop and the wonderfully popular Ice Age items the museum stocks. Where amongst all the shiny gem stones and marvellous minerals the visitors have the opportunity to take home a soft, cute and cuddly but fierce Sabre Tooth Tiger or a Woolly Mammoth. They come in two sizes and make great gifts ready to get little (and large) imaginations running wild with scenes possibly like our own Sir William Boyd-Dawkins.

Pssst, why not consider the museum shop for your Christmas shopping. We have some great stocking fillers for creatures great and small!

Evidence for a top predator of the past

This week Museum Manager, Ros Westwood looks at early evidence for some terrifying local fauna!

Sabre tooth and mastodon diaroma

Sabre-toothed cat and mastodon diaroma at Buxton Museum

Last week there was another amazing natural history programme on BBC, following lions in the drought torn Kalahari Desert in Botswana tracking equally emaciated elephants. Nature is grim in both tooth and claw, and everything needs to eat. No, I did not watch it – in programmes like this I always want the targeted ‘dinner’ to survive, and prefer not see the blood and gore of the kill, but I know it cannot be so, but it did make me think.

You see, that same tale was being lived out 1.9 million years ago in a local landscape, in fact not four miles north of Buxton near the village of Dove Holes. I can’t comment about the weather at the time – but I suggest the area was more like a savannah grass land, with less rain than we are familiar with.

But the events that occurred were similar, even if the protagonists may have been a little different – sabre tooth cats rather than African lions and mastodons not elephants. It may not have been so hot and parched, but the evidence of the Victory Quarry assemblage suggests the story of cats as top predators seeking the easiest prey.

How do we know this? Museums are places of story and memory, and this story goes back to 1901 when young Master Hick (we do not know his first name) was assisting his father at the quarry. When the dust from the charges settled, the boy found a collection of bones and teeth among the scatter of rocks. He brought these to the local museum which was then at Buxton Town Hall. The curator Mr Hill called on Professor Boyd Dawkins at Manchester Museum to help identify them.

With this evidence, Boyd Dawkins could explain that the plains of this ancient landscape were home to hyena, mastodon (adult and juvenile), mammoth, rhino, horse and deer but the lead carnivore was the sabre tooth cat.  After much consideration, Boyd Dawkins identified a piece of tibia and two teeth as belonging to as Homotherium sainzelli Amyard. Further research in recent years by Dr Ross Barnett at the University of Durham has reattributed this recommending it should now be recognised as H. crenatidens.


Tibia of a Sabre-toothed Cat found at Dove Holes.

Boyd Dawkins declared these to be “the very oldest collection of remains of animals from caves which have been met with in the whole world”.  This claim continues to have relevance, with Dr Barnett asserting in 2010 that it currently represents the earliest appearance of Homotherium in the British Isles. Although Boyd Dawkins described this as Pliocene, the age has been revised and is now considered as Early Pleistocene, but to the museum visitor that is still a very, very long time ago.

The bones are on display at Buxton Museum and the teeth are at Manchester Museum.   As part of collections in the Landscape we are investigating the possibility of establishing a better date for the assemblage by examining the dentition of the baby mastodon molars.

The Victory Quarry site is now owned by Derbyshire County Council and is managed as a fishing lake, but beware, the ghosts of the sabre-toothed cats may still prowl around the rocks.