by Matt Salusbury and Tim-Holt Wilson
This article first appeared in UKGE's Deposits magazine of June 2020.
The Wonder of Our Times: Being the True and Exactly Relation of the Body of a Mighty giant dig'd up at Brockford Bridge neer Ipswich in the county of Suffolk. That's the title of a printed pamphlet from 1651, now in the Thomason Collection of the British Library (Ref 1). It was written in the form of a letter from "I.G." to his brother in London, updating him on "the town of his nativity" (Ipswich).
It describes a skeleton found by workmen digging in the "gravelly way". Brockford is a hamlet in the parish of Wetheringsett, located on the A140 road (grid reference TM117669) about 15 miles north of Ipswich (Figs. 1 and 2). It is not exactly "neer" (near) the town in seventeenth century terms – in those days it would have been the best part of half a day's ride on horseback. It’s unlikely that "I.G." travelled all the way from Ipswich to Brockford to see what the pamphlet called "The Wonder of the Age" for himself; he probably relied on descriptions he received in letters. The pamphlet refers to a John Vice as having found the bones, so the account is second-hand, at least.
Fig. 1. The Brockford area shown on Hodskinson's map of Suffolk, 1783. It is crossed in a north-south direction by a turnpike (the modern A140) and diagonally by a lane between Mendlesham and Thorndon. (Image by kind permission of David Yaxley – Hodsksinson’s Map of Suffolk in 1783; Lark’s Press, East Dereham, 2003).
Fig. 2. Brockford Bridge as it is today. (Image: T Holt-Wilson.)
The pamphlet gives us a fairly detailed description of the bones of the "Mighty giant". Records of local palaeontological finds from the nineteenth century onwards point to similar remains being occasionally found in the area, and allow us to speculate about the likely identification of the "giant". Following a recent geological field trip to Brockford, we attempt to identify the likely geological context of the find, and we attempt to identify the "gravelly way" from which the "Mighty giant" was unearthed.
It's unclear from the text whether the "gravelly way" was an already existing road made from gravel or a feature from which people dug gravel, and there isn't any "Gravelly Way" marked on modern maps. But Brockford Bridge is sited in a shallow valley in the headwaters of the River Dove – a tributary of the River Waveney – and gravels are locally abundant (Fig. 3). They date from the Pleistocene epoch (2.5 million to 11,700 years ago), flooring the valleys and outcropping in patches within glacial deposits.
Climate during the Pleistocene oscillated between warm and cold periods. During warm interglacial periods, the local landscape would have been forested, with swampy valley bottoms. During cold glacial periods, the landscape would have lacked vegetation and bare ground would have gradually slumped into valley bottoms, due to periglacial freeze/thaw processes active in the subsoil. Mammal bones can be deposited in both environments, either stratified in valley muds or incorporated into valley gravels.
At Brockford, the British Geological Survey map represents much of the area's geology as an ocean of pale blue (Ref 2), representing the Lowestoft Formation, a cold-phase till (boulder clay) deposit of the Anglian glaciation, about 440,000 years ago. It forms the gently undulating plateau of High Suffolk, and borehole records show that it underlies the area to a depth of some 21m (70ft) at Brockford (Ref 3) and 11m (36ft) a short distance away down the valley at Wetheringsett (Ref 4).
Overlying this, the valley is floored with a shallow layer of alluvium (silt, sand, clay and patches of peat), dating from the last 11,000 years or so. Any gravels encountered in the "gravelly way" are likely to be scourings from the local clayland plateau, mobilised in periglacial conditions during the last cold period known as the Devensian, which ended some 11,700 years ago. The alluvium then formed a veneer on top and the seventeenth century diggers would have cut through this alluvial layer to reach the useful gravels beneath.
Fig. 3. The River Dove near Brockford, showing coarse gravel in the stream bed and clay-rich loam along its banks. (Image: T Holt-Wilson.)
Gigantic bones have played an important role in the cultural history of humankind. They provoke the imagination, and stretch the reason to provide an explanation for their unfamiliar shapes and uncouth dimensions. There’s even a whole area of study known as cultural palaeontology or ethnopaleontology, which looks at intangible palaeontological heritage, the non-scientific influences that certain fossils have exerted on culture.
The Classical Greek and Roman authors are a particularly rich source of information, allowing us plausibly to match stories of "monsters" and "prodigies" with the remains of known fossil animals. The folklorist Adrienne Mayor has taken an extensive look at stories of bones of monstrous and mythical dimensions recorded by Classical authors, particularly Greek (Ref 5). Several temples had tables displaying what, from their description, are clearly fragmentary fossil mammals, particularly elephants, mammoths and giraffids – smaller prehistoric relatives of the modern giraffe.
The Cyclopses (one-eyed giants) were thought to have been inspired by the skulls of the smaller species of prehistoric elephant that populated the Mediterranean islands in Pleistocene times: the nasal aperture in the centre of the frontal bone suggested a single eye socket (Fig. 4). Mayor notes that many of the animals encountered by Hercules in his twelve labours are identified by the name of the region they came from – the Nemean Lion and the Erymanthian Boar, for example. Mayor discovered that these locations in modern Greece turn out to have fossil-bearing strata, usually yielding Pleistocene megafauna.
Griffins, as described by Herodotus – the "father of history" – were said to live in what's now Central Asia. They were described as having a lion's body with the head and claws of an eagle, having nests where they laid eggs and guarded gold (Ref 6). Mayor believes this is a description of the ceratopsian beaked dinosaur, Protoceratops, whose nests with fossilised eggs have been found in modern times, in strata which are also gold-bearing. (We note – in passing – that there used to be an inn at Brockford named The Griffin.)
Fig. 4. The skull of an African forest elephant, Loxodonta africana cyclotis, in the UCL Grant Zoology Museum, London. (Image: M Salusbury.)
The Greek historian Solinus, writing 1,800 years ago, described how the hero demi-god Hercules – he of the twelve labours – had destroyed a tribe of rogue giants at now long- vanished Greek town of Pellene, now just a village. This was dismissed as credulous folklore until a heavy rainstorm on the site in 1994, after which a local villager found a gigantic tooth. Pellene became a palaeontological dig that uncovered the remains of several mastodons.
Devotees of the Egyptian god, Set (aka Sutekh and Satan), are recorded as bringing large quantities of blackened bone fragments to his shrines at Matmur and Qua, black being a colour associated with the dark, sometimes malevolent character of this god. These have been preserved and unearthed in the shrine – they turn out to be mostly fragments of horned giraffids and fossil relatives of horses. While most Egyptian gods are humanoid or depicted with the heads of known animals, Set's head is that of an unknown animal, with strange, squared-off ears. There is speculation that his head, as shown in Egyptian art, is inspired by the skull of a fossil or more recent, but now locally extinct, animal – possibly a prehistoric aardvark (Ref 7).
Mayor has also turned her attention to fossil finds recorded in the oral traditions of Native Americans, which she examines in Fossil Legends of the First Americans (Ref 8). These traditions include the "Thunder Horse", a legend that fossil hunter Edward Drinker Cope heard from the people of the Lakota Sioux Nation in South Dakota and Nebraska in the 1870s. They described how, after heavy thunderstorms, sometimes a Thunder Horse – an enormous horse, a magical being that lived in the clouds – would be killed during the storm (possibly by lightning, it wasn’t clear) and its bones would fall to the Earth.
While many Americans of European descent derided such Native American traditions as "superstition" at the time, Cope had a hunch there might be something to this legend. He asked the Lakota people to lead him to the remains of a Thunder Horse after a storm. There, he found the fossil bones of the odd-toed ungulate now known as Megacerops – looking like a rhinoceros, but actually more closely related to horses. The Lakota were right about the link between the Thunder Horse and storms – the heavy rains had washed away the banks of sediment that concealed the bones. Megaceropswas originally known as Brontotherium, which translates as Thunder Horse, while the family to which the species belongs is still known as the Brontotheriidae
The Siwalik Hills in India, setting for the epic battle of gods, heroes and monsters in the ancient Indian Sanskrit epic poem – the Mahabharata – are littered with evidence for Plio-Pleistocene fossil animals, including fossil bones, skulls, jaws, and tusks of hippopotamuses (Hexaprotodon), proboscideans (Stegodon, Archidiskodon), four-horned giraffes (Sivatherium, Giraffokeryx), giant tortoises (Geochelone), sabre toothed cats (Paramachairodus) and camels (Camelus). Their role in generating mythic inspiration for the writers of the poem has been explored in an interesting article (Ref 9).
As far as we are aware, there's been no systematic survey yet of "wonders" and "prodigies" from Britain whose identity points to fossil fauna. The chronicler, Ralph of Coggeshall, abbot of the monastery at Coggeshall in Essex, wrote Chronicon Anglicanum (Chronicle of the English) in the early thirteenth century. This has a chapter entitled "On Giant’s Teeth" (Ref 10). This records how Ralph himself had handled two enormous teeth that were found on the Essex seashore at Foulness and taken to his abbey. Ralph took these as evidence of giants, which he claims had been seen alive in Wales, with one such Welsh giant being "a young man of immense stature, whose height was five cubits [7ft 6 inches or 2.3m]". From his description, the teeth were almost certainly those of a proboscidean – a prehistoric elephant or mammoth.
To return to Brockford, the pamphlet describing the discovery of the "Mighty giant" recounted how some people thought the partial skeleton was that of a "Dane" or of "King Arthur", the locals imagining that the Vikings and the legendary Romano-British warlord had been literally larger-than-life heroes or anti-heroes, towering over most men. To illustrate the pamphlet, the publisher used stock woodcuts of Greek heroes and giants dressed in the romanticised costume of the Native Americans, as they were then imagined (Fig. 5). As explained by Adrienne Mayor, the ancient Greeks had a similar view: they believed too that the likes of Achilles and Ajax from Homer's Iliad were heroic giants among men from a bygone "golden age", since when men had "degenerated" in height.
Fig. 5. The frontispiece of the 1651 pamphlet, The Wonder of Our Times: Being a true and exact relation of a Mighty giant dig'd up at Brockford Bridge... R Austin for W. Ley, London, 1651. (Out of copyright, fair dealing under the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1986 – front cover image for the purposes of a critique or review.)
We think the story of the Mighty giant dig'd up is another instance of an historic palaeontological find, and the account is clear enough to allow us to make a tentative identification. There's quite a detailed description of the "giant" in the pamphlet. The body had a skull that was "half a bushel" in size – half a bushel is a measurement of grain, about four gallons (just over 18 litres). Eleven "huge teeth" were found. The leg bone (presumably a thigh) was "about the width of a middling woman's waist" and when the skeleton was laid out it was ten feet (3m) long.
From the description, it seems the workmen who found the skeleton had laid it out on the ground as you might a human skeleton. They assumed whatever they had found was a biped, and laid out the bones with the arms as if they were hanging from the shoulders in life position, with the legs descending from the pelvis and the skull rising from the neck. The enormous size of the bones and teeth suggests to us that they were dealing with proboscidean remains. If we accept this identification, what kind of beast might they have found.
The order Proboscidea includes elephants, mastodons and mammoths, and the remains of at least three different proboscidean genera have been found in Suffolk. Over two million years ago in the early Pleistocene, we find evidence of southern elephant, Mammuthus meridionalis, and mastodon, Anancus arvernensis. About half a million years ago, in the middle Pleistocene, we find the steppe mammoth, Mammuthus trogontherii, which later evolved into the woolly mammoth. The straight-tusked elephant, Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) antiquus, (Fig. 6), is typical of warm phases in the later Pleistocene, while the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius, is typical of cold phases.
Fossil evidence for Suffolk's Proboscidea typically turns up in gravel quarries, along the eroding coastline and sometimes in river beds. For example, in 1995, a woolly mammoth jawbone was found in the bed of the River Glem at Hawkedon, presumably derived from cold-phase sands and gravels exposed in the river bank (Ref 11).
Elephants and mammoths are well represented in the county of Suffolk's museum displays. Ipswich Museum has a life-size woolly mammoth reconstruction near the entrance and some impressive mammoth remains including a femur of the straight-tusked elephant on display in its excellent geology gallery. West Stow Museum's tiny palaeontology display includes a fragment of mammoth tusk and a piece of elephant's shoulder blade. Halesworth Museum likewise has a tusk fragment. Southwold Museum has a whole chest of drawers of proboscidean bits from local cliffs and beaches, many of them from the Crag strata at Easton Bavents. Another significant collection is housed at the UKGE headquarters at nearby Reydon.
A lucky dachshund dog named Daisy made the national newspapers a few years back after it found a mammoth femur on the beach at Dunwich Heath, and fragments of proboscidean teeth and bones are occasionally handed in at Dunwich Museum by holidaymakers. Suffolk's beachcombing community tell us that if you go to Felixstowe Beach after a heavy storm, you’ve a good chance of finding fragmentary mammoth teeth.
Brockford lies in the valley of the River Dove and there are several records of proboscidean remains found within its catchment. The most famous site is at Hoxne, some 7 miles (11.4km) away, where the brick-pits have yielded fossil mammal remains since the late eighteenth century, including straight-tusked elephant (Ref 12). This site is worth a whole article in itself, but the interesting thing from our point of view is that these finds have been dated to a warm interglacial period about 400,000 years ago, known as the Hoxnian. Other local sites of Hoxnian age have been identified in tributary valleys at Athelington and St Cross, in both cases, from borehole evidence taken from deposits several metres down.
Fig. 6. A straight-tusked elephant skeleton in the Natural History Museum, Rome. (Image courtesy Dr Georgios Lyras.)
Thorndon lies two and a half miles (4km) downstream from Brockford. There is an old record of a section of elephant tusk 27 inches (68cm) long recovered from river gravel at a depth of 8ft (2.4m) (Ref 13). Harold Spencer wrote that: "Incomplete bones and elephant and other large animals from an unrecorded site at Thorndon are, to judge from the elevation, and the position in the Dove valley system, in all probability of Hoxnian age"(Ref 14).
There is an unverified report of an elephant tooth found by a farmer in this parish, probably in the 1970s (Ref 15). A short distance away, Claud Ticehurst records a straight-tusked elephant tusk "from glacial gravel close to Braiseworth church" (Ref 16) – he is most likely referring to the old St Mary's church. Hoxnian sites in the Waveney catchment are typically developed in former lakes or hollows in the Lowestoft Till plateau. Down-cutting by river erosion over the past 430,000 years or so has since isolated them at heights of between 16ft and 33ft (5m to 10m) above valley floors (Ref 17).
We note that at Braiseworth, St Mary's is located on the valley side near the site of an old gravel pit, lying at about 118 ft (36m) above sea level. The adjacent valley floor lies at about 95ft (29m), so the difference in height between them is no more than 23ft (7m). Ticehurst's site is thus plausibly a Hoxnian one.
Remains of straight-tusked elephant are also known from a later interglacial period known as the Ipswichian, about 120,000 years ago. Bones have been recovered from Ipswichian deposits beneath the Waveney valley side at Wortwell (Ref 18), some 15 miles (24km) away. They were found at roughly the same height above sea level as the present river floodplain (Ref 17).
Remains of woolly mammoth have not so far been recorded from the River Dove catchment, but bones and teeth have been found in gravel pits in the Waveney valley at sites, such as Weybread and Homersfield. Here, they are typically found in the cold-phase river gravels of post-Hoxnian age that fill the valley floor or outcropin isolated terrace remnants along the valley sides (Ref 17).
Although we cannot determine whether the bones of the "Mighty giant" were those of a warm-period interglacial, straight-tusked elephant or a cold-period glacial woolly mammoth, the geology of the Brockford site suggests we are dealing with cold-phase valley gravels, most likely of Devensian age.
The landscape situation, on the valley floor in the shallow headwaters of a Waveney tributary rather than on the valley sides, suggests we are dealing with post-Hoxnian remains. The fact that a range of skeletal elements were found lying together provides some useful taphonomic detail – we may infer that the bones come from a carcass, which is unlikely to have been moved far from its place of first deposition, otherwise the bones would have been scattered. However, this scenario might fit either species: a straight-tusked elephant from the Ipswichian buried beneath Devensian gravels on the valley floor; or a woolly mammoth buried within Devensian gravels.
The gravel diggers evidently struggled to comprehend what they had found. We found a reference in the Ipswich Journal to a "stupendous elephant" in a menagerie of “foreign animals” visiting Ipswich in 1800, which claims to be first live elephant ever exhibited in the County Town. So, it's unlikely anyone locally would have actually seen an elephant or even recognised its skeleton, in 1651.
To the Brockford diggers, the skull with its big, domed cranium might have looked like a giant human's, particularly if it had its tusks detached and, while living elephants' feet are pillars of flesh designed to support several tonnes, the actual bones end in long, thin toes. The forearms could have been mistaken for a human arm ending in fingers, while the shoulder blades and ribs might have reminded them of a human's. The tusk sockets might resemble nostrils to someone with little knowledge of human anatomy.
Fig. 7. A plastic mammoth skeleton configured as a "biped". (Image: M Salusbury.)
Taking a scale model of a mammoth skeleton, we can arrange its elements as if it were a biped (Fig. 7). According to the seventeenth century pamphlet, the “shin bones” were partly damaged or missing, so they have been partly left out of our reconstruction. It also says the teeth in the upper jaw were missing, so the tusks presumably would have been too (the tusks being incisor teeth from the upper jaw). Minus its tusks, doesn’t it look a bit like a human skeleton? As to the fate of the Brockford bones, the pamphlet says the locals “broke up” the skeleton – everyone wanted a piece of it, it seems.
A final point. We can only speculate where the “Mighty giant” was dug up. It may have been from gravels in the valley floor near Brockford Bridge over which the busy A140 passes. Alternatively – and more attractively – we have discovered a nearby “gravelly way” in the form of footpath immediately to the northeast of Brockford Bridge. It is the ancient lane from Mendlesham to Thorndon (Fig. 8).
It is certainly very gravelly, no doubt made up with locally sourced material (Fig. 9), although we could find no evidence of a nearby gravel pit of any depth. It flanks the River Dove, which is a feeble trickle compared to what it would have been in late Devensian times, with seasonal snow-melt streaming off land in the headwaters of the river catchment, sweeping sand and gravel with it – and perhaps the carcass of a mammoth.
Fig. 8. The old road to Thorndon as it is today, northeast of Brockford Street. (Image: T Holt-Wilson.)
Fig. 9. Gravel in the floor of the old lane at Brockford. (Image: M Salusbury.)
Thanks to Richard Muirhead for his librarianship skills in pointing us in the direction of The Body of a Mighty giant pamphlet. This article is adapted from a chapter on Suffolk giants from Matt Salusbury's forthcoming book Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk (CFZ Press, in production).
Any other examples of accounts of prodigies, wonders, marvels and monsters from British or Irish chronicles, pamphlets or broadsheets that apparently describe fossils finds would be greatly appreciated, via email@example.com.
About the authors
Matt Salusbury is a freelance journalist and editor, author of Pygmy Elephants(CFZ Press, Wolfardisworthy, 2013) and Chair of the National Union of Journalists London Freelance Branch. He is a regular contributor on zoology, archaeology and the history of science to Fortean Times magazine and a trustee and volunteer of Dunwich Museum, Suffolk, as well as editor of its newsletter, Discover Dunwich
Tim Holt-Wilson is active in geoconservation in East Anglia: a member of the Geological Society of Norfolk (President, 2015) and Quaternary Research Association; and a founder member of the GeoSuffolk Group; a former Co-ordinator of Geo-East. He is author of Norfolk’s Earth Heritage (2010) and Tides of Change – Two million years on the Suffolk Coast (2014), and a past contributor to Deposits.
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"In the time of King Richard there were found, at a village called Edolfuesnesse [Foulness], on the sea shore in Essex, two teeth of a certain giant, of such a size, that two hundred teeth which men now have might be cut out of them. These teeth we saw at Coggeshall, and we handled them with plenty of admiration. A rib of this giant was also discovered in the same place, of astonishing size and breadth."
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13. [Harris, Rev. H.A.]. "Finds", Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, vol.18, part 3, 1924.
14. Spencer, Harold. A Contribution to the Geological History of Suffolk, Suffolk Naturalists’ Society, 1972, p.89.
15. Wymer, John. Palaeolithic Sites of East Anglia, Geobooks, Norwich, 1985.
16. Ticehurst, Claud. The Mammals of Suffolk, Transactions of the Suffolk Naturalists' Society, vol.2, 1932.
17. Coxon, P. Pleistocene Environmental History in Central East Anglia, PhD Thesis, University of Cambridge, 1979.
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