120,000 years ago, elephants, hippopotami, lions, bears, bison and deer roamed the Devon countryside. Their bones became fossilised in the Joint Monitor Cave, now owned by the Penegelly Trust which is located near the small Devon town of Buckfastleigh.

In September 2015, an important part of history was stolen from the Pengelly Trust. It is believed the Trust’s unique fossil collection was deliberately targeted to fulfil the needs of black market collectors. As well as the stolen fossils, other bones were dislodged from the walls and floor of the cave, causing substantial damage to the site’s main demonstration area. 

It has been possible to recreate many of the fossils with assistance from the School of Engineering’s Human Interface Technologies (HIT) team a part of their ongoing virtual heritage projects, many of which are based in the county of Devon. The recreations were made possible by using a combination of Virtual Reality and 3D printing techniques based on digital records of very similar bones, removed from the Cave in the 1960s and preserved at the National History Museum in London. 

With the scan data provided by the Department of Earth Science at the Natural History Museum, it has been possible for the team to develop 3D datasets of fossils suitable for 3D printing technologies. They have also allowed the Team to develop an interactive Virtual Reality “catalogue”, meaning users can select any of the 11 fossil records provided and manipulate them into real time. These 3D fossil recreations have also been located in a virtual cave scenario developed by the Birmingham researchers. The final 3D prints were produced by colleague Grant Benton, of Salisbury-based Nova-Robotix.

The virtual cave, compete with flying bats and the sounds of distant wolves and straight-tooth elephants, enables schoolchildren to take part in a “virtual fossil hunt”, exploring the scene, searching for and identifying the types of bones prior to seeing their detailed virtual representations in the VR catalogues and the physical facsimiles in their accurate settings.

The fossils recreated using the
Natural History Museum’s data
scans are:

  • Bison Vertebra (x2)  Bison Lower Molar
  • Bison Upper Molar
  • Elephant Molar
  • Wolf Canine
  • Bear Canine
  • Coprolite (fossilised
  • (faeces x 4)