The Ebbsfleet Elephant
Image credit: Simon Martin
A new audio-visual work commissioned for Estuary Festival by Cement Fields for Ebbsfleet International Station, created through research into the Ebbsfleet Elephant, discovered during the construction of the station. The Elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus, straight-tusked elephant) lived in what is now Britain during the Lower Palaeolithic period - the prehistoric period during which stone tools were made by humans.
The installation included a vinyl print of ‘Monarch of the Forest’ (2021), a specially commissioned painting by Bob Nicholls. Paleocreations.com
Text by Richard Unwin
This place was once not as it is today. Before the concrete, steel and glass, before the concourses, platforms, stairs and lifts, people were here - or at least hominid ancestors similar enough to us - but here too were the great giants, 4m tall straight-tusked elephants that roamed the wooded marshland of interglacial southern Britain.
While the idea of elephants living wild in the Kentish countryside might seem strange today, around 400,000 years ago the local environment was closer to one we might now associate with such creatures. Larger than the modern African elephant, the straight-tusked elephant - Palaeoloxodon antiquus - lived across Europe and Western Asia during a period when the climate fluctuated between phases of glaciation and warmer interglacials that allowed for greater biodiversity in more northerly locations. During those warmer windows of time, elephants, as well as animals including lions, rhinoceros and macaque monkeys, were able to live in a Kent accessible via the land bridge with continental Europe: a connection that ultimately was severed by the impact of shifting glaciation and a rise in sea levels.
In 2004, archeologists working on sites exposed as part of the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link dug into the forgotten sediments lain down by this world. At an excavation on Southfleet Road, little more than a stone’s throw from where Ebbsfleet International Station now stands, the partial skeleton of one of the lost giants was found alongside the well-preserved remains of flint tools fashioned by ancient hands. Associated with the Palaeolithic Clactonian culture, the presence of the tools suggests the discovery of a butchery site where early humans dismembered the elephant’s carcass. There is no direct evidence of how the majestic elephant died, but it could have done so at the hands of our distant ancestors, whose own lives would have depended on hunting and killing the exotic fauna of the prehistoric Ebbsfleet Valley.
In creating this installation, artist Emily Whitebread spoke to specialist academics - including an archeologist, a biologist, a geologist, a historian, and an anthropologist - to build up a sense of the environment and soundscape unearthed by the excavation. Emily also commissioned Palaeolithic artist Bob Nicholls to depict the now extinct straight-tusked elephant’s physical appearance. The resulting painting shows Palaeoloxodon antiquus emerging from the darkness, as the sounds collated by Emily reawaken a place whose imprint lies recorded in the ground beneath our feet; in the layers of sediment underlying our contemporary preoccupations, constructions and edifices.
Emily would like to thank Dr Francis Wenban-Smith, University of Southampton; Professor Adrian Lister, Natural History Museum; Dr Steven Zhang, University of Bristol; and Curator Roula Pappa, Natural History Museum for their support and guidance in realising the work. She would also like to thank sound recordist Chris Watson and the Elephant Listening Project at Cornell University for providing audio of present-day African elephants.