Opening a window on the Mesolithic at Star Carr
Over a decade of research at Britain’s most important Mesolithic site has shed vivid light on life shortly after the end of the last Ice Age. With the project’s findings now published in a wide-ranging two-volume monograph, Carly Hilts explores some of the most illuminating discoveries.
Around 11,000 years ago, the banks of Lake Flixton were part of a rapidly changing world. This was just four centuries into the Holocene, the geological warm period in which we still live today, whose advent at the end of the last Ice Age heralded a sudden rise in global temperatures. On a more local scale, the area of North Yorkshire now known as the Vale of Pickering was seeing open grassland turn into birch woodland, and species that had long dominated the landscape, such as horse and reindeer, being replaced by roe deer and giant cattle called aurochs. It was also at this time that hunter-gatherer humans began to establish themselves at a spot known as Star Carr.
Today, this location is hailed as Britain’s most important Mesolithic site. Although the lake that it bordered has long since vanished, the peaty local soil has preserved a treasure trove of organic remains that have redefined our understanding of life during this period. The site was discovered in the 1940s by John Moore, and excavated by Grahame Clark between 1949 and 1951. While his investigations only uncovered a small part of the site, Clark’s finds were game-changing, including the largest assemblage of bone and antler yet recovered from any Mesolithic site in Britain, as well as intriguing artefacts like the famous antler ‘frontlets’, enigmatic headdresses crafted from deer skulls.
What did these remains mean? Clark interpreted the site as a temporary hunting camp, used seasonally by small groups following migrating herds of red deer from the Vale of Pickering to the uplands of the North York Moors. In Clark’s day, Mesolithic people were stereotyped as primitive nomads with little sense of place or history, but as more Mesolithic wetland sites have been excavated in Britain in recent decades, and as more extensive investigations have been carried out at Star Carr, it has become increasingly clear that they were far more culturally and technologically sophisticated than previously imagined.
The most recent campaign of research at Star Carr – running between 2003 and 2015, and directed by Nicky Milner, Chantal Conneller, and Barry Taylor – has added invaluable detail to this emerging picture. In CA 282 we explored how this project had demonstrated that Star Carr was not a seasonal camp but saw activity throughout the year, and, since then, the team has released a wide-ranging monograph in two volumes, describing their research in comprehensive detail (see box at the end of the article). Here we will explore some of their insights into Mesolithic life.
RETURN TO STAR CARR
The reasons for returning to Star Carr were manifold: while Clark believed he had discovered the full extent of the site, since the 1970s fieldwork by Tim Schadla-Hall and the Vale of Pickering Research Trust has uncovered much wider evidence for Mesolithic activity on the lake edge. Clearly there was much more to be learned, but time was of the essence: in recent years the Lake Flixton landscape has been transforming once again, with the peat drying out and shrinking, endangering the survival of any organic artefacts still preserved within it.
At the same time, the site had great potential: around the time when the project was beginning, advances in modelling radiocarbon dates using Bayesian statistical analysis (see CA 259) had revolutionised understanding of Neolithic sites, allowing researchers to construct chronologies on a scale as precise as individual human generations. The Star Carr team hoped that they might be able to do the same on a Mesolithic site. Their efforts have been amply rewarded: the site has yielded evidence of repeated and lengthy episodes of occupation between c.9300 and 8500 BC. It was also much bigger than Clark ever dreamed – field-walking and test-pitting suggest that Mesolithic activity covered an area of c.19,500m2. To-date, less than 10 per cent of this expanse has been excavated, yet it is now possible to construct a detailed picture life beside the lake.
According to the team’s proposed chronology, Star Carr seems to have first caught the interest of Mesolithic people c.9385-9260 BC. We can find early echoes of their presence in a mass of worked wood and fallen branches known as ‘the brushwood’, which was placed in the shallows of the lake c.9340-9190 BC. This area continued to attract attention for some time, with artefacts deposited around it throughout the 93rd and 92nd centuries. Early inhabitants were also responsible for the creation of what is called the ‘detrital wood scatter’ – a jumble of over 1,300 pieces of wood in the centre of the site, including whole tree trunks and split timbers, which extends for about 25m from the shoreline. People continued to dispose of their rubbish in these waters for a span of some six-to-ten generations, and the artefacts that accumulated among the timbers provide a rich source of information on what they were doing at this time: woodworking, butchering animal carcasses, and crafting tools from antler and flint.
These early traces are intriguing, if somewhat ephemeral. But after a number of episodes of burning – possibly to clear the land – c.9070-8945 BC, the site then seems to have seen much greater investment of effort as a living and working space. It was at around this time, in the mid-90th century BC, that the first of three mighty wooden platforms was built on the Flixton shore. Each was built separately with the entire construction period lasting some 175 years, and these huge structures, made up of whole trees as well as split timbers laid directly onto the peat, represent an enormous amount of time, labour, and resources – ideas that were once alien to our imaginings of the highly mobile Mesolithic.
The earliest, known as the ‘central platform’, was the largest and most complex. Made from timbers up to 3.8m in length, it had three layers that were apparently built in a single episode, as little sediment has accumulated between them. This mass of timber extended at least 17m into the reed swamp, continuing outside the area excavated by the Star Carr team – but, most interestingly, it had also been laid on top of, and on the same alignment as, the by-then long-disused ‘detrital wood scatter’. This accumulation might have been seen as a handy raised area to use as a base, but its reuse could also hint at an understanding and appreciation of the location’s history as a ‘special’ place for the platform-builders’ predecessors.
Next came the ‘eastern platform’ in c.8945-8760 BC (though the team admits that dating for this platform is the least secure of the trio, as it has yielded the fewest samples for analysis). Being only a single layer of wood extending for 11m, this was the simplest of the three surfaces, though no less substantial, with whole trees and timbers measuring over 4m long in its make-up. Finally, the third construction – the ‘western platform’ – represents a return to complexity in c.8805-8755 BC. Its five layers of timbers stretched at least 14.5m from the shore.
What were these labour-intensive constructions for? No doubt they would have helped people to move through the wetlands more easily, giving them access to deeper waters for hunting or fishing. Possible interpretations are plentiful. Might they have offered a stable surface for hauling in or mooring boats? (No such craft have been found at Star Carr, but a paddle hints at their presence.) Or could they have had some kind of ceremonial use, perhaps facilitating the deposition of watery offerings? The fact that relatively few artefacts have been found among their timbers makes it difficult to pin down a likely purpose – they do not seem to have been work-spaces, though, as you would expect at least some detritus from such activities to have slipped between the timbers.
Whatever their function, the timber platforms mark the beginning of a notable intensification of occupation at Star Carr, c.8800 BC. It was at this time that the dense dump of animal bone and other refuse discovered by Clark was deposited (c.8915-8775), and the current project team has suggested that the small number of structures identified at the site (of which, more below) may belong to this flurry of activity too. Yet if this period represents Star Carr’s zenith, the good times were not to last for more than another couple of centuries: while it is difficult to establish precise dates for the final phases of the site’s use, human occupation seems to have ceased c.8555-8380 BC.
HOUSES ON THE SHORE
What can we tell about life at Star Carr? One of the most significant recent discoveries was evidence of possible houses, representing both the first structures to be identified at Star Carr, and the earliest evidence for buildings yet found anywhere in Britain. The first to emerge, in 2008, is known as the ‘eastern structure’ – its footprint is preserved as a 3m-wide hollow surrounded by a 4m-wide ring of post-holes. In following years, another concentration of possible post-holes was identified as the ‘western structure’, while a more complex scatter of features was deemed to belong to the ‘central’ and ‘northern’ structures. The latter only survives in part, but assuming that its post-holes originally formed a complete circuit, the eastern, central, and northern structures all seem to have been similar in design: oval buildings ranging between 3.6m-4.2m long and 2.6m-3.8m wide.
These rare traces of ancient architecture are tantalising, but also curious – their post-holes are surprisingly slight (barely 10cm in diameter) if they were intended to support a roof or walls. Perhaps, the project team suggests, they instead held some kind of lattice made of flexible stems that were bent to create a dome and lashed together at the top. This could have been covered using the abundant natural resources available, including reed thatch, birch bark, split timbers, and animal hides.
As for interior design, the houses may have been floored with reed matting or bark – a thick layer of dark, decomposed matter within the eastern structure’s fill hints at something organic – and a concentration of burnt flint suggests that at least some contained hearths. The structures seem to have been as much workshops as living spaces: refuse recovered from their footprints paints a busy picture of their inhabitants crafting stone tools, working with antler and wood, processing animal hides and plant materials, and cooking fish and meat.
The ‘western structure’ is harder to reconstruct, as the alignment of its post-holes is less coherent, and they lack an obvious relationship with any central hollow. Rather than being a formal ‘house’ structure, an alternative interpretation might be some kind of frame used for drying/smoking fish or plant materials, or for hanging animal hides to be worked on.
Of course, these may not have been the only structural remains at Star Carr: given that 90 per cent of the occupied area has not been excavated in detail, it is entirely possible, the team suggests, that there were others, whether formal constructions like the above, or temporary lean-to structures or tents that had no need of post-holes and have therefore left no trace in the archaeological record.
The buildings that have been identified, though, are a fascinating addition to the small but growing body of evidence that exists for Mesolithic structures. Such discoveries are rare, especially any of similar antiquity to Star Carr, though early traces have also been found at Deepcar, South Yorkshire. After c.8000 BC, however, evidence of architecture becomes relatively more apparent – this includes the circular buildings at Mount Sandel, Ireland (CA 59 and 331), as well as the probably more conical structures at Howick, Northumberland (CA 189); East Barns, near Dunbar, and Echline, South Queensferry; and at the Isle of Man’s Ronaldsway airport (CA 235, ‘News’).
What about the lake-dwellers’ diet? Star Carr’s watery environment has preserved a wealth of animal remains, giving us clear insights into what was on the Mesolithic menu. These traces have been found scattered throughout both wetland and dryland areas of the site, but the densest single deposit of antler and bone, totalling over 560 specimens, was the dump discovered by Clark. To put it in perspective, some 581 animal bones were recovered by the present project across the entire excavated dryland area (mostly scattered in and around the western, eastern, and central structures), while another 473 fragments were recovered while processing soil samples. Clark’s dump was dominated by red deer (162 bones), roe deer (49), aurochs (41), and elk (12) – all large animals that could easily have fed a big group of people – and it has been suggested that this mass of material might represent rubbish from a feast catering for people who had come together for celebrations or communal construction projects.
Elsewhere on the site, much of the animal bone is poorly preserved, making it difficult to tell which animals the refuse came from, but the more robust bones of larger species have survived to a better extent – these included red deer, elk, aurochs, roe deer, and wild boar. The majority reflect animal carcasses being butchered for food, with long bones broken open to get at the marrow within, but others (including those that had been split longitudinally, as well as the antler fragments) are more likely to reflect craft activities.
In the wetland areas, most of the faunal remains were found close to the eastern platform, and were again dominated by red deer, roe deer, and elk. One of the more illuminating animals found in this watery environment, though, was the near-complete but poorly preserved skeleton of a dog. This was found in an area of very shallow reed swamp, and although it was not possible to determine anything about the animal’s size or appearance, the team estimates that it was 6-7 months old at the time of death.
Dog bones are significant finds on Mesolithic sites, as human remains of this antiquity are very rare in Britain, so canine companions are often taken as proxies for people. They can shed useful light on how far people of this period travelled (for example, a dog tooth found at Blick Mead, the Mesolithic occupation/feasting site near Stonehenge, testified to a journey of as much as 250 miles from the Vale of York to Salisbury Plain – see CA 321), and what they were eating. Isotope analysis of Mesolithic dog remains from another Vale of Pickering site, Seamer Carr, revealed that its diet had included marine-derived protein, raising (still hotly debated) questions about seasonal migrations of people between the Vale of Pickering and the coast. The Star Carr dog yielded no such signs, however, suggesting that this site’s occupants did not travel regularly to the coast – or, at least, if they did, they did not take their dogs with them.
The most-famous animal remains from Star Carr are the modified red-deer skulls known as the antler frontlets. Some 21 were found during Clark’s excavations, and the latest investigations have added another 12 to their number – seven from the area around Clark’s trenches, and the rest scattered through wetland parts of the site. Clark interpreted them as headdresses, with the brain cases smoothed to ensure a better fit, and the antlers cut down or removed to reduce their weight, but the current research team suggests that the skulls may have been adapted in order to represent different ‘personalities’.
Certainly, a diversity of deer had been used in the creation of the frontlets: one involved the skull of a large, powerful male who had apparently been involved in many rutting fights, and who had been killed in the spring just after shedding his antlers; another two were made from the skulls of young, smaller males who still had their antlers attached, and one more came from a large female. In trimming or removing antlers, you can change the apparent age or sex of an animal – was this the intention here?
As for what these striking objects were for, Clark thought that the frontlets might have been hunting disguises that helped the wearer creep closer to their intended prey, or else they may have been worn in shamanic rites communing with animals for better luck in hunting. The present project team suggests that the latter idea is more likely, as ethnographic studies of hunter-gatherer groups from more recent times suggest that wearing antler hunting disguises is a practice exclusive to North America, while ritual use of such garb is more common to Eurasia, particularly in Siberia. Accordingly, although the frontlets do not cover the face, the researchers suggest they should be described as ‘masks’ rather than ‘headdresses’, reflecting their intent to transform the wearer’s appearance.
The frontlets are not the only clue that members of the deer family were considered to be important by the inhabitants of Star Carr. The placing of cervid remains in the wetlands is a key feature of the site’s archaeology, seen throughout the lakeside’s Mesolithic occupation. The earliest incarnation of such practices involves an elk skull, which was deposited in the first half of the 93rd century BC, right at the start of Star Carr’s use. Intriguingly, the ritual placing of elk remains into water is also a known feature of the early Mesolithic in southern Scandinavia.
Around a century later, though, their focus seems to have switched to red deer – the earliest antler frontlets are thought to have been placed (in the detrital wood scatter) between 9315-9245 BC and 9115-8915 BC, but they continue to appear across various phases of the site’s use. The most intensive phase of frontlet deposition occurred between 8885-8775 BC and 8815-8715 BC – this includes the 21 complete or partial frontlets found by Clark, and seven of the more-recently found examples. Another frontlet was placed within the eastern platform during its creation (c.8945-8760 BC), while the poorly preserved and heavily flattened example found upslope at the border of reed swamp and wood fen is thought to be one of the last to have been deposited, though this one was difficult to date.
Yet, while frontlets seem to have been an important aspect of life at Star Carr, they are not seen at any other known Mesolithic sites around Lake Flixton. Herein lies the paradox of Star Carr: it is at once an invaluable source of evidence about Mesolithic living, opening a vivid window onto a world that is not well represented in British archaeology, and an enigmatic anomaly. The more Mesolithic sites we find, and the more we learn about Star Carr itself, the more we are coming to realise that it is not just a special site for modern observers – it would have been seen as an unusual place for Mesolithic visitors too.
The discovery of possible houses is exciting not only because of their rarity, but because they provide a welcome reminder of the importance of wood to Mesolithic communities. This material rarely survives on Mesolithic sites, but the presence of structures and the great timber platforms highlight how skilled Star Carr’s occupants were at using it. Given the extensive evidence of woodworking on the site (ranging from entire felled trees and split timbers to smaller off-cuts and woodchips), it is tempting to speculate on what other handy objects – such as ladders, fish traps, and storage platforms – might also have once furnished the site.
Another deceptively mundane material from the site that sheds interesting light on Mesolithic life is the humble bracket fungus. This species is also known as ‘tinder fungus’ because of its usefulness for starting fires, and this characteristic seems to have been well understood by our prehistoric forebears (it was found among the possessions of the Bronze Age ‘Iceman’ Ötzi, for example). Star Carr can now boast the largest-known assemblage of charred fungus from Mesolithic Britain.
By contrast, one of the most unusual items from Star Carr is a small shale pendant etched with a series of parallel lines and smaller markings drawn at right angles (pictured – see also CA 314). While these engravings are diffi cult to see with the naked eye, experimental archaeology suggests that when freshly cut they would have been vibrantly white against the darker background, and similar artefacts are known from southern Scandinavia. Possible interpretations of the markings are numerous – stars, a map, a bird, the lines on the palm of the hand, a river with channels diverting water, a tree, a leaf, the Star Carr platforms, or a form of writing working in a similar way to the medieval Irish script Ogham – but, whatever its purpose, the pendant seems to have been deliberately placed in the lake, hinting at practices whose meaning has long faded from memory.
Nicky Milner, Chantal Conneller, and Barry Taylor (eds), Star Carr: Vol.1 – A Persistent Place in a Changing World and Vol.2 – Studies in Technology, Subsistence and Environment, White rose University Press, ISBN 978-1912482009. e-versions of both volumes can be downloaded for free at https://universitypress.whiterose.ac.uk/ site/books/10.22599/book1/ and https:// universitypress.whiterose.ac.uk/site/ books/10.22599/book2/ respectively. For more on the Star Carr archaeology project, see www.starcarr.com.