Beasts Of The Northern Wild

One day in the summer of 1990, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a group of archaeology students drove across England at stupid o’clock in the morning in a brand-new minibus stuffed with excavation equipment. I was one of them, straight off the train from Glasgow and a few weeks of catering work to pay my expenses.

We had breakfast in a trucker’s cafe in Dover before taking the ferry across to Zeebrugge, then driving on the Wrong Side Of The Road to the Museum of Ice Age Archaeology at Monrepos, in Neuwied, Germany.

“Monrepos is one of the leading institutions for the research of early human history” – Wikipedia

The Schloss, perched on one of those rocky outcrops that seem to dot the German countryside, is a magnificent mansion set in woodland high above the town. We spent the night lulled by red wine and wood-fired pizza, rolled in our sleeping-bags in what had once been the castle’s hunting-lodge, the trees beyond our window sleepy with birdsong.

Before we set off the following morning, we had a private tour of the Museum für die Archäologie des Eiszeitalters, to give it its German title. As the town’s website says:

“The museum focuses on the culture of hunters and gatherers in this region up to 6000 BC”

And the museum is crammed with mammoths.

Max the Mammoth of Monrepos

I was halfway through my degree, studying prehistory and human evolution and environmental archaeology. With its cave paintings and Venus figurines and scarce traces of humanity, combined with my recent devouring of Jean M Auel’s Clan Of The Cave Bear, the Upper Palaeolithic was one of the periods that had me hooked.

Maybe it always had.

As children we learned about woolly mammoths at an early age (even before the Ice Age films were made). Maybe it’s a Scottish thing. The Ice Age is a prominent feature of Scottish geography. Our hills and mountains, our cities, our broad flat plains, are all shaped by glaciation, and none of it – the trees, the boggy moorland, the fertile valleys and deep lochs – existed ten thousand years ago.

Scotland doesn’t have fossils like those at Neuwied. Ours are older, and lie much deeper, in our ancient rocks. Compared to most of Scotland’s fossils, woolly mammoths and human settlement are impudent upstarts.

And I find them fascinating.

At Monrepos most of the museum’s exhibits come from rich deposits in the local landscape. Vast bonefields of ancient animal fossils from the last Ice Age and the previous interglacial period, early human habitation, Neanderthals – all of these are abundant in the area around Neuwied. Six hundred thousand years of the past.

A Lost World.

I’m haunted by the notion of great beasts roaming the frozen north when humans were few and the world’s climate was different. No forests across Europe, just a frozen sea and a wide, barren snowscape where Doggerland was just another hump of land under the ice sheet. No towns, no farms, no trees or little rivers.

Wilderness. Emptiness. Ice. And beasts  of the northern wild.

I know I’m not the first to be fascinated by the idea. Humans painted great art on cave walls while mammoths roamed Europe. We carved figurines from their ivory, made shelters from their bones, and we must have spun great stories about their spirits, even if, as some prehistorians postulate, most people might only have seen a woolly mammoth once in their entire life.

I’m not versed enough in extinction theories to work out whether human activity influenced the decline of mammoths and the other megafauna of the Ice Age, or whether the creatures were doomed to decline through the effects of climate change on their habitat. All I know is that they survived long into human history, and I’m utterly enchanted.

Before the mammoths all died out we’d built pyramids in Egypt, fought wars in Mesopotamia, cast bronze in ancient China.

While mammoths still lived on Wrangel Island, isolated in the Arctic, we laid the foundations of Troy.

We built Stonehenge before the last small mammoths died.

But human history is chock-full of extinctions. As the presence of modern humans spread across the continents, the megafauna disappeared.

Fossils and folk-tales and fantastic monsters took their place, from the Cyclops of Odysseus to the Oliphaunts in Lord Of The Rings, great mystical creatures which once were commonplace and now are scarce, hunted to extinction or lost when their habitat was altered. A different world, through which a warm wind blew. It’s a theme that runs strongly through The Last Rhinemaiden and the associated Cuckoo Club stories.

My fellow students and I left Neuwied and its fossils behind as we headed for our excavation in northern Italy the following morning.

But some of the museum’s magic entered my soul, not simply with the notion that if I studied hard enough I might someday find a job in a marvellous institution like Monrepos (I didn’t). Tugging at me, like the wind across a tundra, was this imagined world of ice and monsters and the loneliness of sentient creatures left behind when all others of their kind are gone.

And thus, there, in a magical place near the River Rhine halfway between Frankfurt and Cologne, The Last Rhinemaiden took her first steps towards the Cuckoo Club.National Geographic: Ice Age Meltdown


  1. I have always wondered if those great stories spun about their spirits survived survived the relay race of retelling and exist now.

    • I suspect we’ve translated them into things we understand, not in language terms but in terms of ideas or superstitions.
      What might Grendel’s mother be, if not a monster from the deep (or the deep frosts)?
      Maybe the stories are buried deep in the folklore of non-English speaking peoples – the Siberian nomads, for example – because they would still “meet” mammoths during the summer months when the permafrost thaws.
      Hmm…… sounds like some research is needed (and another blog post :-)!).

  2. […] something special about looking at another type of human being and knowing that, unlike mammoths, they did not die out at the end of the last Ice […]

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