THE giant woolly creature stands four metres tall, his head skimming the ceiling of the third-floor exhibition hall at the National Museum of Scotland.
Alongside the imposing full-scale replica of a Columbian mammoth are giant skulls, teeth the size of house bricks, supersize bones, a particularly impressive curved set of mammoth tusks... and some poo.
Then there is the slightly shrivelled, but infinitely fascinating figure of Lyuba, an exact replica of the 40,000-year-old baby mammoth and the best preserved of her kind ever found.
Welcome to the Ice Age, and what promises to be the latest hit exhibition on Chambers Street. Transported back tens of thousands of years and brought right back up to date with whizz bang and pop interactive displays, visitors are met with a sign not often seen in a museum setting. “Please touch”, it reads.
Well, everything except the mammoth dung that is.
Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates, peers into the glass case containing what looks to the untrained eye as a couple of big, slightly hairy stones, and confirms that they are, indeed, poo.
“Columbian mammoth dung,” he nods. “It was found in a cave and is actually really interesting because it can tell us a lot about what mammoths ate.”
Most might have unwittingly kicked the two piles of poop to one side and carried on walking through the cave, however expert mammoth hunters with a keen eye for a bit of ancient dung carefully picked it up. Eventually it found its way to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago where it went on to find a place in its 2010 showpiece Mammoths of the Ice Age exhibition.
The exhibition went on to tour several American museums, including Boston, Denver and San Diego. Now, in a major coup for the NMS, it has arrived in Edinburgh for a four months visit – its first stop outside the United States and an exclusive chance for visitors to see it ahead of a summer stint at the National History Museum in London later this year.
Just getting the exhibition to Edinburgh provided a logistical headache – particularly as a large chunk of it was still floating at sea until just a couple of weeks ago, admits Sarah Teale, the exhibitions officer responsible for organising its transportation. “We are the first venue outside the UK to take the show and it had to travel from San Diego,” she explains. “All the artefacts – like the bones – had to be transported by air in temperature controlled crates, so they were fine. However the other components like cases and models travelled in containers across the Atlantic. The storms meant it was nailbiting.”
Once at the museum, staff then faced a massive jigsaw puzzle of trying to piece bits together – building the large Columbian mammoth which dominates the exhibition bit by bit and hoping their measurements were right. As it stands, the tip of the massive model’s skull just fits under the ceiling of the hall.
“At one point someone was actually inside the mammoth’s head while someone else was trying to attach the trunk,” adds Sarah.
While the huge mammoth, which stands alongside a towering model of a short-faced bear, the biggest which ever lived, and a vicious looking sabre-toothed tiger, reveals the staggering presence of those Ice Age creatures, at the other end of the scale were positively titchy pygmy mammals, mini-me style creatures who lived on an island off the coast of California.
According to Jaap Hoogstraten, Director of Exhibitions at The Field Museum in Chicago, the exhibition was among its most successful. “It’s the scale of these animals and the fact they were social-created, they had death rituals, that’s what fascinates. They were big but gentle and very charismatic. Families loved it.”
Star of the show, however, is Lyuba, tucked behind a glass case, and barely larger than a Labrador, yet she holds any number of secrets that have helped scientists unravel the mysteries of the Ice Age’s most iconic creatures.
“By studying the remains of mammals we can find out a lot,” nods Andrew. “Just by looking at Lyuba’s teeth, it was possible to find out how long she lived – she was in the womb 22 months and was a month old when she died. There was even her mother’s milk found in her stomach.”
A lump at the top of her spine was a fat store to keep her warm in winter. And traces of her mother’s dung were found in her gut, perhaps not terribly appetising to us humans, it would have been consumed to help prepare her young digestive system for the tough grasses that would eventually became her staple diet.
But sediment found in her oesophagus suggests she was choked or asphyxiated, possibly having stumbled and fallen while trying to follow her mother across a fast-flowing Siberian river. Her body became buried in the mud, pickled by acids, and then sealed beneath the permafrost for thousands of years, helping to preserve her until she was found by reindeer hunter Yuri Khudy and his sons on a frozen riverbank in remote Yamal Peninsula.
The real Lyuba is too precious and fragile to possibly make the journey from the museum in Russia where she is kept, however the replica is an exact copy – even down to tiny wisps of mammoth wool that strays from her ears.
But perhaps the most poignant element of the exhibition is the final exhibit – the skull of an elephant which once roamed the safari park at Blair Drummond, there to help illustrate how easily today’s endangered elephant descendants of the Ice Age mammoths could become the museum exhibitions of the future.
“If we are not careful, we could be looking at the modern day elephants like we are looking at mammoths today,” adds Andrew. “There was this huge diversity of elephant-like animals in the past. Today, only three species of elephant remain.”
Mammoths of the Ice Age runs from today until April 20. Adults £9, concession £7.50, children five and over £6. Family tickets are available. Entry is free to National Museums Scotland Members and children under five.