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The Yorkshire Archaeological & Historical Society

Since 1863

For everyone interested in Yorkshire's past

Mesolithic Yorkshire – Star Carr, a major European Mesolithic Site

Star Carr

First excavated by Grahame Clark between 1949 and 1951, Starr Carr has dominated archaeologists’ understanding of the Mesolithic period in Britain ever since. As the site is waterlogged and conserved in peat, Clark’s excavations were able to uncover an extraordinarily well preserved array of finds: large quantities of butchered animal bone, barbed antler projectile points, elk antler mattocks, bone scrapers, beads and, most iconic of all, several masks made from red deer skulls and antler.


Microliths (narrow blade type): Conistone Moor (Late Mesolithic c. 6000 BC) (G. Waterhouse Collection)

Clark suggested these may either have been worn in ritual dances or acted as disguises designed to aid hunting. Additional excavations at the site in the 1980s uncovered part of a platform of worked aspen timbers on the edge of the former post-glacial lake (Lake Flixton) on which Star Carr sat, the earliest evidence for systematic carpentry in Britain. These later excavations also revealed that the site was much larger than had originally been thought and had been repeatedly occupied over a period of around 300 years.

Work undertaken by the Universities of Manchester, York and UCL in 2004 revealed a continuous spread of lithic artefacts over 150m, tripling the known extent of the site. Test-pitting and more extensive excavations followed over the subsequent three seasons, revealing dense occupation of the dryland areas of the site, with evidence for intensive flint knapping and the processing of animal bones. In the waterlogged areas large quantities of red deer antler were recovered much of which appears to have been waste material used in the production of barbed antler points, of the type recovered by Clark. This may support recent ideas that Star Carr, rather than being a typical base camp as Clark supposed, was actually a site where certain rites took place, involving the ritual deposition of antler barbed points and frontlets into the waters of the lake.

By far the most exciting recent find was of a Mesolithic house, the earliest so far known from Britain, dating to 8500BC or possibly even earlier. What remained of the structure was a ring of 18 posts enclosing an area about 3.5m in diameter. The clustering of the postholes suggests the house may have been repaired during its lifetime. Within the posts, a 2.5m wide pit had been dug into the ground. This contained sediments composed of decayed organic matter, perhaps reeds or grasses. These would have created a soft floor for the inhabitants. The sediments did not contain any charcoal, but the house contained burnt stone tools and manufacturing debris, suggesting it once contained a hearth. Beyond the house were external hearths around which further activities involving the manufacture and use of stone tools and the processing of animal bones were focused.

The upper layers of the house pit contained large quantities of domestic debris: stone tools and animal bones. People were making tools such as microliths, repairing arrows, making or using scraping tools and, in particular, making and resharpening tools used for working bone and antler. Three axes – tools that are relatively rare in the Mesolithic – were also found in the house, one of which was reshaped and resharpened in the house. The immediate task is to understand how the house was used and how it related to activities elsewhere on the site. Does the material in the house represent debris from inside it or was it used as a rubbish dump after it fell out of use? Were tools made in the house used outside or vice versa?

As well as the house, excavations also revealed more of the timber platform first uncovered by Clark. This evidence for substantial structures at the site is significant. The people who lived at Star Carr were some of the earliest migrants back to Britain after the last cold phase of the last Ice Age. Classic stereotypes of hunter-gatherer behaviour state that they are very mobile, with few possessions and leaving few traces in the landscape.


Star Carr: pendant (Early Mesolithic: c. 9000 BC)

What we see at Star Carr is different. There appears to be considerable investment in modifying the local environment: the platform is extremely large, which would have required considerable amounts of labour; the house too is relatively substantial. Environmental analysis also demonstrates that people were using fire to change the local vegetation, encouraging fresh shoots that animals could feed on.

It seems then that the post-glacial immigrants to Britain were not purely mobile, but very attached to particular places in the landscape, which they returned to again and again (at least 300 years in the case of Star Carr). The debate about whether Star Carr was a permanent or a seasonal settlement, and how typical this was of life in the Mesolithic, continues.

One of the most important findings of the recent excavations is how much organic preservation has deteriorated in the half-century since Clark dug at the site. Bone and antler finds are now extremely poorly preserved and need expert conservation to survive. Drainage over the years has led to peat shrinkage and the site drying out. The sediments are also now highly acidic, which further threatens the bone preservation. Environmental specialists who have visited the site have estimated there may only be five or ten years before the organic material, which has made the site so justly famous, is gone for ever. Future work on the site needs to excavate and record the remaining archaeology before it is too late.

Star Carr head-dresses


Star Carr: red deer antler frontlet head-dress/mask (Early Mesolithic: c. 9000 BC)

The most iconic artefacts recovered from Star Carr are the 21 so-called antler frontlet head-dresses or masks. Made from the skull of an adult deer, the bones of the face and sides have been removed and the antlers cut back and hollowed out. But their single most remarkable feature is the two large holes drilled through the back of the skull. This has given rise to the idea that they were holes for tying on some form of mask or head-dress, worn by a hunter as a disguise to get closer to the deer, or by a shaman in a ritual enacted to guarantee a successful hunt or to honour the animal, who in the process actually became a man-animal. In this way, they are both practical objects which possibly also provide an insight into the ‘spirituality’ of Mesolithic people.

Star Carr pendant: the oldest Mesolithic art in Britain

In 2015 an engraved shale pendant was found during excavations at the Early Mesolithic site of Star Carr. The pendant was found in a brown-green fine detrital mud containing a high proportion of organic material which is currently being radiocarbon dated and modelled using Bayesian statistics but other well understood site evidence shows the sediments in which it was found very probably formed around 9000 cal BC.


Star Carr: pendant, drawing of engraving (Early Mesolithic: c. 9000 BC)

With the exception of amber pendants from southern Scandinavia, engraved motifs on Mesolithic pendants are extremely rare. The artwork on the pendant makes it the earliest known Mesolithic art in Britain; the ‘barbed line’ motif is comparable to styles on the Continent, particularly in Denmark. When it was first uncovered the lines were barely visible but using a range of digital imaging techniques it has been possible to examine them in detail and determine the style of engraving as well as the order in which the lines might have been made. In addition, microwear and residue analyses were applied to examine whether the pendant showed signs that it had been strung or worn, and whether the lines had been made more visible through the application of pigments, as has been suggested for some Danish amber pendants.

However, as archaeologists at the site conclude: ..we can only speculate as to what the art represents, and what the production and possibly wearing and display of this object meant to the people living along this lake edge during the ninth millennium BC.”