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Star Carr re-excavated

4 August 2013

In Current Archaeology 282 (Sept 2013) – www.archaeology.co.uk – there is an interesting article on Star Carr (a longer but similar article appeared in Antiquity 86 in 2012) which provides a little history of the earlier excavation undertaken by Grahame Clark between 1949-1951. Star Carr become the archetype site of the Mesolithic in Britain and Ireland and its findings pop up in endless books on prehistory and the early Holocene. The new excavations at Star Carr, and nearby, have revealed some further and unexpected information useful to the next generation of archaeologists. Star Carr was occupied at the beginning of the Holocene, and the site is basically a settlement by the side of what was a lake at the time. Hidden beneath the thick deposits of peat which had protected perishable remains, the new team found evidence for a substantial settlement some 80 times larger than theorised in the now out of date textbooks and archaeological ruminations. They also found houses – suggesting a permanent, or near permanent, habitation at the lake side location. One is left wondering if Clark's interpretation was coloured by consensus thinking on the Mesolithic era in that he visualised it as a place of seasonal occupation, the dominant view being that Mesolithic people moved around. If so, it has taken 50 years or so to bring the nomadic image of hunter gatherers to heel. Let'shope some of the prevailing consensus ideas don't take that long.

Interestingly, Star Carr was discovered by an amateur local archaeologist and nosey enthusiast, one John Moore (otherwise unsung), when walking fields in the Vale of Pickering. Finding one flint in a recently cut drainage ditch he began prodding around and the next year came back to excavate the site – not expecting too much. . He uncovered a lot more flints and went on to take some borings with an augur in order to find how deep the peat went (a tool commonly used by geologists to discover underlying sediments and how deep they are). Moore, excited by it all, informed Clark of what he had found, and the latter went on to make a name for himself by excavating what is the largest assemblage of bone and antler artefacts recovered from Mesolithic sites anywhere in Britain. Some 21 of the antler skulls were interesting from the perspective of SIS and cometary catastrophism as they had been worked in such a way they could be worn as masks or head dresses. Clark jumped to the conclusion they were used by hunters to get close to their quarry – and this is what is normally quoted in the consensus text books. Perhaps they were used in a practical fashion but horned head dresses became of feature of ritual myth in later millenniums and it is possible it had an origin as early as the beginning of the Holocene, a highly relevant idea in respect to current ideas on comets and the Younger Dryas event.

Clark, as early as 1954, interpreted Star Carr as a seasonal base for four or five family groups, visiting the site over a period of only 6 years. They were also supposed to have been in that location as they were following the migrating herds of red deer, and it was theorised the deer visited the lake in the winter. Humans turned up at the same time, taking advantage of the meat on the hoof. Moore was clearly left behind – perhaps he disagreed with Clark. We don't know but it is an interesting idea, a clever amateur being upstaged by the professional and one that had been actively seeking out a type site for the Mesolithic – but was it in order to promulgate ideas already lodged inside his head? Moore is not recorded in archaeological circles, an unknown amateur. Clark gained a reputation and an academic career of standing. It all sounds very familiar.

The recent project began as early as 1985 in order to work out the entire shoreline of the lake as the peat was drying out as a result of farm drainage (and EU subsidies). What they found was increasing acidity and deteriorating bone and antler. As the investigation went on it emerged the extent of the Mesolithic settlement had been highly underestimated by Clark. He had got the information he wanted and never went any further. Mesolithic flints were found in abundance, over an area of some 2 hectares – so it was not just a lake shofre hunting camp. The post holes of the houses were circular with a hollow inner floor. In here the soil was dark suggesting organic remains – such as reeds laid down as a sort of carpet. On the shoreline itself evidence of advanced carpentry skills became evident – a well built platform or trackway made of planks split or hew from a large piece of wood such as a tree trunk. Wedges had been hammered into the wood following the natural grain – and the planks were as thin as a modern plank of wood, with edges shaped by a flint adze. None of this fits with the idea of transient occupation – and Clark's brushwood, it seems, was actually sitting on top of worked timbers (which were ignored or not investigated). The pollen and charcoal taken from the site proved it had been occupied in the spring and summer and over a long period of time. Likewise, the reed beds had been cut back and cleared on a regular basis to provide material for the houses and provided instant access to the water – and any boats that may have been in use. C14 dates panned out at 9300-8400BC, almost a thousand years of occupation (much more remarkable than Clark's 6 years).

Grahame Clark appears to have had an agenda (unstated in the article) so far as the Mesolithic was concerned. Sites had to be small and occupied by just a few people – in comparison with the later Neolithic examples (early farming communities) based on the hypothesis of growth and development that was heavily peddled in the 1950s. Even Mortimer Wheeler, in one of his books, described Star Carr as a squalid huddle of marsh ridden hunter gatherers which was simply regurgitating the consensus prejudice of the period (hunter gatherers being akin to primitive tribesmen that still existed at the time). It makes you wonder  what interpretation Moore would have made if had kept the site in his hands and had excluded the professional opinion.

A booklet on the recent excavations by Milner, Taylor and Conneller, Star Carr: Life in Britain after the Ice Age, ISBN 978 1902771991 is available for just £13 – see also www.yorkshiremuseum.org.uk and www.starcarr.com


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