Archaeologists yesterday hailed one of the finest discoveries of Ice Age remains in recent decades after a quarryman accidentally unearthed the fossilised skeletons of four woolly rhinos.
The skull of one of the prehistoric beasts was dug up by an excavator at a gravel pit in Whitemoor Haye, Staffordshire, three weeks ago. Scientists led by a team from the University of Birmingham unearthed the rest of the 40,000-year-old animal's 7ft skeleton and completed the excavations of three more rhinos yesterday. To add to their haul, described as remarkably well preserved, they also dug up remains of a mammoth, reindeer, wild horse and wolf as well as plants and beetles.
The fossilised skeleton of the first rhino, which weighs one and a half tonnes, is being studied by palaeontologists at the Natural History Museum in London, where it will eventually go on display. The rhino remains, which are thought to have been frozen almost immediately after the animals died, are so well preserved that traces of the last meals – plant materials – are still sticking to their teeth.
Andy Currant, of the Natural History Museum, said: "This is the best example of a woolly rhino I have seen. It's the best single palaeontological find since the 1960s by quite a long way. It's the best find of a woolly rhino in Britain for at least 100 years."
A spokesman for Lafarge Aggregates, which owns the site, said it had been unearthed by an excavator driver, Ray Davies. "He hit something that he knew wasn't gravel and saw this huge skull in his bucket. He couldn't believe it."
Woolly rhinos, which grew up to 11ft long, began roaming the earth nearly two million years ago, but were extinct by the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years later.
It is thought that the site of the quarry may have been an Ice Age watering hole beside what became the river Trent, explaining why so many different species were found in one location.