The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 96

Issue 96

September/October 2007



Ambassador sees peace message in museum

Archaeologist who fought for history's underdogs dies

Roman fort found in Cornwall

Full scale of ancient Welsh stone quarry revealed

In Brief & Phase 2


More travels - This is not just a walk, this is an archaeological walk
John Cannon considers places to see in County Durham

Green treasures from the magic mountains
Alison Sheridan describes exciting new French project on Jade Axes

Fading star: Star Carr
Fieldwork at the iconic mesolithic site reveals new fears


Let Lucy sparkle

on the web

Recommended websites
Who's blogging? And the Society of Antiquaries of London


Views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Mike Heyworth wonders what lies ahead for archaeology


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Fading Star

Star Carr is one of the truly great sites of ancient Britain. It has been revisited by archaeologists (the then young editor among them) more than any other excavation. So how is it that in five years it may be gone? Nicky Milner – deep in her own revisitation – explains.

Star Carr, near Scarborough, North Yorkshire has captured the imaginations of archaeologists since the first significant excavations in 1949–51. In the 1940s the British mesolithic (then thought to have lasted 3,000 years, now dated to 10–4,000BC) barely registered in prehistoric narratives. Grahame Clark, however, realised the importance of hunter-gatherers in European prehistory. He hoped the promise of organic remains likely to be preserved in the wet peat at Star Carr would add a new dimension to an era represented by little more than a few enigmatic flint artefacts.

It did. In fact the range and quantity of finds, including red deer skull frontlets turned into headdresses, and antler points made for spears or harpoons along with manufacturing blanks and raw antlers, remain outstanding in Europe. Star Carr has been described as a "type site". It never fails to appear in text book accounts of the mesolithic. It has had a huge number of research articles written about it, it is constantly being reinterpreted and further excavations were undertaken in the 1980s by the Vale of Pickering Research Trust.

So, why carry out more excavations there?! Well, despite all these years of research there are still many important unanswered questions about Star Carr. And now we have discovered that the site is under serious threat and may soon be lost forever.

Over the last 20 years or so the Vale of Pickering Trust has been working hard to picture the ancient landscape. Today the area is farmland, but some 11–12,000 years ago Star Carr would have been on the edge of a lake. The lake turned to peat through prehistory, but augering and measuring the peat's depth have revealed the mesolithic land surface and lake edges. Test pits dug around much of the lake edge have also discovered a number of other early mesolithic sites.

What this work has shown is that Star Carr is not a "type site" within this landscape: it is unique. None of the other early mesolithic sites has the same kind of artefact assemblage. At Star Carr 192 barbed antler and bone points have been found (which is over 97% of the total number found in Britain!). Only one other broken barbed point has been found on the lake, at No Name Hill. The antler mattocks, stone axes and beads made of shale, animal teeth and amber found at Star Carr have also not been found on the other sites around the lake. As if that was not enough, Clark's antler headdresses find parallels on only three sites on the continent, each with one example. Star Carr has 21.

This work around the lake has allowed new interpretations to be put forward. For instance, Richard Chatterton, Joshua Pollard, Chantal Conneller and Tim Schadla-Hall have all considered the unusual range and quantity of material culture at Star Carr, and have suggested that these objects may have been the focus of ritual deposition into the open water. They also identify the social significance mesolithic people attributed to animals, particularly in this context red deer, as the motivation behind the unusual depositionary practices. Yet technological analysis highlights the range of activities at Star Carr and the network of connections with other sites in the area. These authors have not tried to replace the other functional interpretations, such as butchery site or hunting base camp, with "ritual site".

New questions

The original excavations and the monograph have been heralded as being of a high standard for their time, but there are certain questions which have been thrown up by the new interpretations which cannot be answered with present data.

Environmental investigations were carried out during the original excavations, but they did not provide detailed information on the archaeological contexts. Through the work in the 1980s it is now thought that much of the area excavated by Clark may have been open water at the time of occupation. This also raises questions about the brushwood, which Clark interpreted as a living platform. It is now believed it lay beneath the artefact layers and was perhaps a natural wood accumulation. The site stratigraphy is far from clear because there are very few section drawings.

Another area of intrigue is the wooden platform found during palaeoenvironmental investigations in the 1980s. This platform, unlike the brushwood one, shows clear evidence of working, and according to ancient wood specialist Maisie Taylor is the earliest evidence for carpentry in Europe. To date we know very little about it, how it relates to the archaeology found in Clark's trenches, its extent and where it leads to.

Another major question is "how big was Star Carr?". There seems to be a general impression that Clark's excavations encompassed most, if not the whole of the site, but it now seems that he uncovered only some of the lake edge deposits. The fieldwork carried out in the 1980s suggested that the site was larger and there was a dry land element.

Another important issue is the timing of activities. From the distribution and typology of barbed points, Clark suggested there were two phases of occupation; he estimated that Star Carr was used over 25 years. Work in the 1980s by Petra Dark on pollen and burning of reed swamp has suggested that the site has a much longer history and that it was probably occupied, intermittently, over about 230 years.

New work

Three years ago, we revisited Star Carr again and fieldwalked it. What was immediately apparent was that the land had been affected by peat drainage. What had in the past appeared as a totally flat field (seen in some of the earlier fieldwork photographs), now rises and falls. What would have been dry land on the lake edge in the mesolithic stands proud of what would have been the lake, and we estimate that the peat has shrunk in some places by several metres.

The fieldwalking provided some interesting data. A peninsula to the east of the original excavations produced large quantities of flint, and some test pitting suggested that plough damage was occurring. The following year we excavated a line of test pits down the peninsula. This revealed substantial concentrations of knapped flint, in some areas up to 139 pieces per square metre. This suggests that the original excavated area constitutes less than 5% of the total occupation!

Fieldwork continued last summer, when we excavated two larger trenches to determine whether the archaeology continued in the lake margins to the east of the earlier excavations. We also wished to elucidate the stratigraphy of the sediments, and observe the effect of drainage and the state of peat.

Trench 21 was fairly shallow, and produced flint but no organic material. Trench 22, however, was much more like both Clark's trenches and the 1980s excavations. It contained considerable quantities of wood. Maisie Taylor suggests this represents a natural accumulation of brushwood, similar to that discovered by Clark. However she also found several distinctive triangular chips which are a characteristic of mesolithic woodworking. This activity may have been connected with the manufacture of the timber platform discovered in the 1980s, which lies only 12m to the west of this trench.

We also found several pieces of antler, one of which has clearly been worked: a strip has been removed to make a barbed point. What is more, burins and other flint tools were found beside it. These finds show that activities occurred further around the lake edge than had been previously thought; there may be other concentrations of activities elsewhere still to be explored. The antler has now been dated to roughly 8700BC, which falls towards the end of the period of occupation and coincides with Petra Dark's later phase of reed swamp burning, demonstrating a long tradition of antler working at the site.

What was really shocking, however, was the state of the antler. It had lost almost all of its mineral content and was flattened in section, unlike the solid antler found in Clark's excavations. Specialists who visited the site and saw this, along with the state of the peat and the wood, suggested that any antler, bone and wood that still survives will probably disappear within the next five to 10 years. Research at York University by Matthew Collins and his team is showing that bone can rapidly decay in a mere couple of years if contained in peat where the water table fluctuates seasonally. It is possible that this may be happening in some areas of the Star Carr site.

The future of Star Carr

The arguments for further work at the site could not be clearer. Less than 5% of the site has been excavated and there is still much to learn:
• What was the nature of the dry land area? Were there structures, hearths and other activities? What does the flint distribution tell us? How far does this occupation area extend? Could this represent large group gatherings?
• What was the nature of the lake edge deposits? What exactly was the context of deposition – were objects being placed in open water or reed swamp? How did the hydrology of the lake work – were some areas seasonally flooded? Where did the timber platform lead and why was it constructed? Why is the accumulation of brushwood there? How far does it stretch? What is the distribution of lake edge activities such as antler working? Why were artefacts being deposited at the lake edge?
• How can we understand the temporality of activities at the site? Did they change over time?
• Why is this site so different to other sites around the lake? Why have other sites like this not been found in Britain? How does this site compare to other sites on the continent?

Our plans are to continue excavating. This year we hope to investigate a larger area of the original dry land to look for evidence of occupation and activities, and to assess the extent of the plough damage. We also intend to excavate nearer to Clark's trenches at the lake margins, to further investigate the deposition of bone and antler, to monitor the degradation of the peat and the conditions for organic survival, and to examine the stratigraphy and nature of the lake edge deposits and the brushwood accumulation in more detail. We are lucky to be collaborating with a wide range of specialists who are providing support and expertise on subjects that include wood, pollen, sediments, macro-plant remains, insect remains and conservation.

But time is running out. Although Star Carr has been studied for over 50 years, we may have less than five years before much of the waterlogged remains deteriorate completely.

There have been criticisms by some that Star Carr has not just informed, but also prejudiced and biased our understanding of mesolithic Britain, and that perhaps this site has been studied too much already at the expense of other sites.

It is certainly true that Star Carr has dominated our narratives of the period. But these have drawn on a very small area of the site, creating a biased understanding. It is important that we try to understand much more in order to correct previous misapprehensions. It is also important that Star Carr is not seen as a "type site", but is acknowledged as having a unique character, at least within the Lake Flixton landscape.

We aim within the next five years to rescue much of the remaining archaeology and address many of the new research questions that have been posed. And we hope that the site will continue to stimulate interest and debate for generations of archaeologists to come.

The new excavations are a joint project between the Universities of York, Manchester, UCL and Cambridge supported by the Vale of Pickering Research Trust, the British Academy and the McDonald Institute, Cambridge. See Nicky Milner directs a new MA in mesolithic studies at the University of York.

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