Return to Star Carr: Discovering the true size of a Mesolithic settlement

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What can we learn from going back to a site that was first excavated by Grahame Clark in 1949-51, and that has since become the type site for the early Mesolithic? The answer is a new understanding that overturns much of what we have been taught about the lives of early settlers in northern Europe, as Chris Catling now reports.      

An artist’s reconstruction of life at Star Carr, where recent excavations have uncovered evidence of a thriving Mesolithic settlement. [Credit: Dominic Andrews]
If you had been alive about 11,000 years ago, living at Star Carr, you might well think yourself one of the luckiest people ever born. Dimly remembered stories handed down the generations and recounted by older members of your community tell of a period of intense cold, when the land was frozen hard and little grew. Then everything changed. The earth warmed and melted, trees grew and the woods and lakes brimmed with food.

That was when your people came to settle by the large lake that is your home; it was as if someone had said ‘enough wandering … this is a good place to stay.’ And so it proved to be, as they put down roots, built homes by the water’s edge, and gradually colonised the shore, so that the smoke from camp fires now rises above the reed beds as far as the eye can see.

Britain’s earliest known house

Lakeside living: this plan shows the full extent of early Mesolithic activity revealed so far at Star Carr — an area of activity at least 100 times larger than Clark’s original lakeside platforms.

Such a scenario for the early Mesolithic would have been dismissed as fanciful less than a decade ago. True, tundra conditions prevailed in northern Europe towards the end of the Younger Dryas cold event (c.10900—9600 cal BC); true, the landscape warmed up at the start of the Holocene, with rapid climatic warming at about 9600 cal BC, after which birch and pine woodland gradually colonised northern Germany, northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands, the British Isles and Scandinavia; true, too, that people were active at the site of Star Carr, in the Vale of Pickering, about 9000 cal BC. We know this because of the fieldwork of local amateur archaeologist John Moore, who first discovered Star Carr, and Grahame Clark, who excavated it in 1949-51.

But everyone knows that Mesolithic people were highly mobile, moving about the landscape in small bands of two or three families. Talk of houses, settlements and putting down roots is anachronistic: that did not happen for another 5,000 years or so, when people began to farm the landscape rather than hunt and forage for wild food.

Or so we were led to believe until members of the Vale of Pickering Research Trust, including Nicky Milner, Barry Taylor, Chantal Conneller and Tim Schadla-Hall, went back to Star Carr and came up with a different story: hidden beneath thick deposits of waterlogged peat that had protected the normally perishable remains of Mesolithic wood, plants and animal products, they found evidence for a substantial settlement, more than 80 times larger than the ephemeral sites considered typical of the period (CA 275). They also found the earliest known house in Britain with signs of longlasting or repeated occupation, along with a series of timber platforms spreading along the lake edge. Not all Mesolithic people were wanderers, always moving on to a new source of food; some pioneer groups invested significant amounts of time and labour in building long-lasting structures in favoured landscape settings, like Star Carr.

Green and pleasant land: where today fields make up the Vale of Pickering, there was once a shallow inland lake measuring some 5km in width and 3km in breadth. [Image credit: Vale of Pickering Research Trust]
What lay beneath the peat

A Mesolithic inhabitant of Star Carr would be puzzled if told that the flat rectilinear fields that fill the landscape today were the site of his or her home. Peat, made up of partially decomposed plant material, the remains of sedges and reeds, falling leaves, herbs and aquatic plants, has remade the former landscape, turning it from open water fringed by swamp and woodland into pasture and ploughsoil. In 1947, John Moore, a keen amateur archaeologist and member of the Scarborough and District Archaeological Society, was walking in these fields when he spotted a single flint blade in a recently cut drainage ditch. The following year he returned to the same spot to excavate Flixton Island Site 1. There he uncovered a dense concentration of early Mesolithic flint, the first hint of more substantial prehistoric activity in the area.

Auguring well: archaeologists from the Vale of Pickering Research Trust survey  the topography of the lake bed. Their layered sediment cores preserve the remains of plants, insects and aquatic wildlife — all clues to the Mesolithic environment. [Image credit: Vale of Pickering Research Trust]
Moore subsequently took numerous borings using an augur to gauge the depth of the peat and lake sediments of what he named ‘Lake Flixton’. By this means he found Flixton Island Site 2, which he excavated in 1948. News of Moore’s work then reached Harry Godwin, at Cambridge University, and Roy Clapham, at Sheffield, who were looking for sites from which to take pollen cores as part of their study of late Palaeolithic and early Mesolithic vegetation. Godwin in turn tipped off his Cambridge colleague, Grahame Clark, who was looking for a Mesolithic site with well-preserved organic remains to study. When Clark wrote to him, Moore confirmed that he had found antler and bone. Clark had found his Holy Grail and wrote ‘here was a clue to something I had been seeking for many years … a British locality offering promise of recovering a settlement site with organic as well as merely lithic data.’

Rising star

The name of John Moore is almost unknown in archaeological circles, despite his excavation reports, published in the journal of the Scarborough and District Archaeological Society, announcing the discovery of the extinct lake and mapping its shores and islands. By contrast, Grahame Clark (1907-95) is a man of almost mythical status in the minds of many archaeologists. His reputation is based firmly on the work that he undertook at Star Carr between 1949 and 1951, under the aegis of the Fenland Research Committee, a multidisciplinary body that brought together archaeologists, geologists, botanists and zoologists in collective endeavour, seeking a better understanding of ancient ecology.

One of Grahame Clark’s excavation trenches, revealing layers of wood. Clark thought that the branches and trees had been laid as brushwood to stabilise the lake margin; these timbers are now thought to have fallen naturally from the lake edge, but they overlie a substantial worked timber platform. [Image credit: Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society]
Clark and his colleagues began their famous explorations by excavating a single trench at a site where Moore had found intact bone. This sits at the western end of the irregularly shaped Lake Flixton, at a place Viking settlers had named star kjær, meaning ‘sedge fen’. Beneath the peat they found layers of brushwood, which Clark interpreted as a lakeside platform, or occupation surface.

Returning to the site over two further seasons, Clark and his team found a wealth of worked flint, butchered animal bones, and what is still, to this day, the largest assemblage of bone and antler artefacts yet to be recovered from an early Mesolithic site in Britain. Of these, 21 antler skulls have attracted the most attention, because they had been worked in such a way that they could be worn as masks or head-dresses. Clark thought they were used by hunters to get close to their prey, though he also suggested that they might have been used in ritual practices or dancing.

When he published his report in 1954, Clark interpreted Star Carr as a seasonal base for about four or five families, visiting the lake shore over a period of six years, as they followed migrating herds of red deer. He argued that deer and humans came to the low-lying lake site in winter, pointing to the fact that the abundance of antler tools and weapons at the site must have come from deer hunted between October and April, because these are the only months during which red deer carry their antlers, before shedding them in the spring.

Tim Schadla-Hall’s excavations at Seamer Carr in 1986, in advance of the development of the site as a waste disposal and processing plant for Scarborough.

Threats to the former lake

Every student of prehistoric archaeology since the 1950s has learned about Clark’s work. Only the fortunate few have had the chance to go back and reinvestigate Clark’s excavations, and to add further important layers of interpretation to a site of immense importance. The new excavations came about, in part, because of concern over how the site was faring in the face of development pressures that included the construction of a 40-hectare landfill and waste processing plant at Seamer Carr Farm, just to the north of Star Carr. Between 1975 and 1985, Tim Schadla-Hall led a programme of fieldwork and excavation to sample some 2km of former lake shore and excavate sites in advance of the Seamer Carr development.

In 1985, Schadla-Hall set up the Vale of Pickering Research Trust to extend this work to the entire shoreline of the ancient lake, with excavations in 1985 and 1989 that uncovered further evidence of Mesolithic activity. These excavations also revealed the worrying fact that the shoreline peat deposits were drying up, while the acidity of the groundwater was increasing, posing a catastrophic threat to the organic deposits that make the shores of Lake Flixton so special.

Clark’s original trench was re-excavated in 2010, in order to check the extent of any deterioration in organic preservation since the 1950s. Here the same birch tree, first uncovered 60 years previously, can be seen. [Images: Scarborough Archaeological & Historical Society; Vale of Pickering Research Trust]

Faced with that prospect, a university-based team led by Nicky Milner and Barry Taylor (University of York) and Chantal Conneller (University of Manchester) successfully applied for a major research grant to undertake new work at Star Carr, arguing that preservation in situ was no longer an option. As evidence that the threat was very real, they compared well-preserved bone and antler from Clark’s excavations with the soft, jelly-like collagen that was now turning up in test pits at the site, the result of acidic reaction with the mineral content of the bone. Further excavation was needed before all the organic data was lost.

New excavation

Between 2004 and 2010, the team started by re-excavating Clark’s original trenches to study the extent of any degradation since 1950, and then extended the site to a much larger scale excavation that took in the dry land just above the lake shore, an area that had never been investigated in the past. Each of their interventions added to our understanding of the discoveries made by Moore and Clark in the 1940s and 1950s.

Firstly, and most significantly, the most recent work has shown that the extent of Mesolithic activity at Star Carr had been greatly underestimated. Field walking surveys on the dry land above the lake shore produced hundreds of worked flints; nearly every test pit produced dense flint scatters. In all, Mesolithic flint was mapped over an area measuring 2 hectares, and it was clear from this that the shore-side activity represented only a fraction of the use of the site.

As well as revealing further dense scatterings of worked flint along with animal bone, extending the excavation onto the dry land resulted in the completely unexpected discovery of a Mesolithic house. The remains of this took the form of a roughly circular series of post holes surrounding a hollow. The hollow was filled with dark soil that, when analysed, was shown to consist of large quantities of organic material, probably the result of laying down reeds or other plants to form a soft dry floor. The superstructure probably consisted of timbers lashed together with nettle fibre or honeysuckle stems, thatched with reed. The positioning of the postholes suggested at least one phase of rebuilding, and several small patches of burnt flint were excavated in the area around the house, suggestive of hearths or camp fires.

Skilled carpenters

This reconstruction of a Mesolithic ‘house’ at Howick, in Northumberland, is similar to the one found at Star Carr, except that Howick has been radiocarbon dated using  charred hazelnut shells to about 7600 BC, whereas the Star Carr house probably dates from 9000 BC. [Image credit: Clive Waddington]
Down on the shoreline, evidence of sophisticated carpentry began to emerge as new timbers were revealed. Each of the post-1985 excavations has found sections of what appears to be a well-built platform or trackway extending for at least 30m along the shore. This was made from planks that had been split or hewn from a much larger piece of wood, such as a tree trunk or a large branch, by hammering wedges into the wood, following the natural grain. Some of the planks were very fine — as thin as a modern plank — with edges that had been smoothed and shaped using a flint adze. The timbers had been laid with their smooth sides uppermost, their rough sides facedown into the mud. Hailed as the earliest evidence for carpentry in northern Europe, these platforms represent a considerable investment of time and effort on the part of a large group of people. Such a finding does not fit easily with the idea of insubstantial transience previously attributed to Mesolithic life.

Part of the platform excavated in 2010, consisting of worked timbers and  extending for at least 30m along the shore. [Image credit: Vale of Pickering Research Trust]
What is more, it appears that Clark’s ‘brushwood’ was also lying on top of worked timbers. When examined closely, the material that he thought had been cut and laid to consolidate patches of swamp to create a working surface turned out not to have any cut marks at all, making it much more likely to be naturally fallen material from lakeside trees. A detailed study of the pollen and charcoal from the site challenged another of Clark’s conclusions: that the use of the site had been short-lived. The reed beds at the edge of the lake had been set alight and deliberately cleared over a very long period of time, perhaps to make access to the lake shore easier or to promote fresh plant growth. By carbon-dating the episodes of burning, a chronology was established for the intermittent use of the site over several decades, beginning in 9300 BC and ending around 8400 BC.

Analysis of the bones from the site revealed the presence of migrant birds that only visit Britain during the summer months, while the plant material included species that only grow from late April to August. Further evidence of summer occupation came from studying the teeth of young animals whose butchered bones were found at the site; the extent of their growth and eruption showed that most had been hunted and killed in late spring and early summer. People were either living at Star Carr all year round, or they were visiting the site repeatedly at different times of the year, and not just during the months of October to April, as Clark thought.

Rubbish or ritual?

A selection of artefacts from Star Carr, including a barbed antler point used for hunting, bodkins, and scraping tools made from aurochs bone. [Image credit: Vale of Pickering Research Trust]
Clearly, too, it was the site of many different activities. Pieces of antler waste surrounded by flint scatters show where antler-working took place. Many of the worked flint flakes and blades had signs of wear and damage along their cutting edge, indicating that they had been used for cutting reeds and wetland plants for thatch, flooring material, basket-making or food. The site produced barbed antler points for use as harpoons for hunting beaver, fish, deer or elk, and flints shaped for use as the tips of spears, arrows or javelins, which in turn implies the manufacture of wooden handles and hafts.

There are bodkins that could have been used for sewing or as clothes-fastening pins, mattocks for digging, wedges for splitting wood, a paddle (but no boat), and tools for scraping hides to make clothing, shoes or tents. Ample bone evidence testifies to the range of food species consumed at the site, from large mammals, such as brown bear, red and roe deer, elk, wild pig and cattle, to birds and smaller animals, such as badger, hare and beaver.

Many of these remarkably well-preserved finds come from the lake margins, and this has led to a number of different, and even contradictory, interpretations of the site. Some archaeologists argue that this area was underwater when the site was inhabited and that the finds represent rubbish thrown away from a hitherto undiscovered settlement site. Others have argued for a ‘ritual’ interpretation. What some interpreters see as discarded rubbish perhaps consists of deliberately placed votive offerings: those mysterious deer masks might have played some part in rituals designed to ensure a successful hunt.

Mobile, sedentary or both?

When Clark published his initial analysis of Star Carr in 1954, he argued that it was a small site, typical of the camps of mobile hunter-gatherers. He drew a stark contrast between this type of site and subsequent Neolithic sites, which were ‘a hundred times greater in area.’ In the same year, Mortimer Wheeler published Archaeology from the Earth. There he declared that Star Carr was ‘as squalid a huddle of marsh-ridden food gatherers as the imagination could encompass.’ We now know that both were wrong: that the site was indeed as large as later Neolithic settlements, and that life at Star Carr was probably far from squalid, with a much larger dry-land component.

On the other hand, the excavation team does not claim that this was home to a fully sedentary community. Instead they see people using Star Carr at different seasons and for different lengths of time, depending on the nature of their activity. They see some highly mobile ‘task groups’ going out from the site and moving over large territories, bringing flint and shale back from sites up to 40km away, for example. Other task groups perhaps occupied the site on a more permanent basis, exercising their skills in carpentry, boat building or bone- and antler-working.

It is possible, too, that Star Carr was visited on a more frequent basis than other sites of this period, and over a longer span of time, because it had acquired a special significance. As well as its natural beauty, its shelter and its resources, there was perhaps a special magic to the place, as indicated by the deposition of the red deer antlers. In this respect, Star Carr is important because it hints at the mindset of an early Mesolithic lake dweller, suggesting an emotional and spiritual attachment to a particular place, as distinct from a simple desire to exploit its resources and move on.

This article appeared in issue 282 of Current Archaeology.

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