Star Carr

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The Early Mesolithic site of Star Carr lies in North Yorkshire, England, 7 kilometers to the south of Scarborough, on the northern margins of an area of flat, peat-covered ground that in the early stages of the postglacial era (c. 8000–9000 b.c.) was occupied by a large lake, approximately 5 kilometers by 2 kilometers in extent. At the time of occupation (during a period of rising sea levels as the last glacial ice sheets melted) the site would have been approximately 10 to 12 kilometers from the coast, flanked by the limestone and gritstone hills of the North York Moors to the north and the chalk hills of the Yorkshire Wolds to the south. Owing to the reduced sea levels, the whole of the southern North Sea basin at this time was dry land, allowing easy access to the Early Mesolithic groups from the adjacent areas of Denmark, northern Germany, and southern Sweden. Calibrated radiocarbon dates point to occupation of the site spanning a period of around three hundred years, from c. 8700 to 8400 b.c.

The classic excavations of the late Sir Grahame Clark at Star Carr between 1949 and 1951 revealed remarkable finds of both stone and bone or antler artifacts concentrated mainly within an area of 200 square meters in the heavily waterlogged deposits that occupied the shoreline area at the edge of the former lake. Clark interpreted the finds in terms of a closely spaced succession of occupations by small groups of hunters, which he estimated from the overall extent of the occupied zone to be in the region of at most twenty to twenty-five people, possibly equivalent to four or five families. The working of red-deer antlers was clearly a major activity at the site, employing the "groove-and-splinter" technique to detach long splinters of antler that were subsequently shaped into multiple-barbed spear points, of which no less than 191 were found on the site (see fig. 1). Other bone and antler artifacts included hafted "mattock heads" of moose (European elk) antler, bone pins, scrapers made from the split metapodial bones of wild oxen, antler-tine wedges, and parts of twenty-one "headdresses" consisting of thinned pairs of red-deer antlers, still attached to parts of the skull, and perforated for attachment either as hunting disguises or (more probably) ritual headgear employed in ceremonial activities. Associated stone artifacts included large numbers of flint microliths (of triangular, trapezoidal, and obliquely blunted forms), apparently employed as barbs and tips of wooden arrows, flint skin scrapers, burins (for working antler), rotary awls, and transversely sharpened flint axes or adzes, together with at least thirty perforated beads made from thin shale pebbles and a perforated pendant of North Sea amber. The only wooden artifact recovered was a fragment of (apparently) a wooden paddle (fig. 1).

The rich assemblage of animal bones recovered from the site included remains of at least twenty-six red deer (not counting antlers), seventeen roe deer, sixteen aurochs (wild oxen), twelve elk (moose), and four wild pigs, as well as a few bones of wild birds and the remains of a domesticated dog. Surprisingly (for a lakeside site) no remains of fish were recovered. Although initial analyses of these remains suggested occupation mainly in the winter months of November to April (a conclusion based principally on the abundance of unshed red-deer antlers still attached to the skull), subsequent analyses of the faunal remains as a whole by Anthony Legge and Peter Rowley-Conwy (1988) point to occupation of the site mainly in the summer season, with the large quantities of red-deer antlers probably being imported into the site as a source of raw materials for tool manufacture from animals killed elsewhere. On the basis of the relative frequencies of different parts of the red-deer carcasses—and by analogy with similar patterns recorded on Inuit caribou-hunting sites—Legge and Rowley-Conwy suggested that the site most probably represented a repeatedly visited "hunting stand" probably occupied by small groups of male hunters who had their main base camps elsewhere. Winter sites, they suggested, could have been located on the adjacent North Sea coast while (as Clark had suggested in 1972) other summer-season camps could have been located on the uplands of the adjacent North York Moors, directly to the north. Other workers (including Clark himself) have preferred to see the site as a more general base-camp locality, with a strong component of both industrial and ceremonial activities represented on the site.

Fieldwork at Star Carr in the late 1980s amplified this pattern in several ways. An excavation 20 meters to the east of Clark's original excavations revealed a short (6 meter) segment of wooden trackway, consisting of carefully split planks of aspen, up to 30 centimeters across and 3 meters in length, extending from the edges of the dry-land occupation zone toward the open waters of the lake—seemingly the earliest evidence for systematic carpentry so far recorded from Europe. Associated analyses of the lake-edge sediments by Petra Dark revealed successive levels of charcoal fragments, which suggested repeated and almost certainly deliberate burning of the lake-edge reed-swamp vegetation extending over a total time span of around three hundred years (from c. 8700 to 8400 b.c. in calibrated radiocarbon years). The burning could have been carried out either to attract animals to the new growths of reeds on the burned-over areas or (more prosaically) simply to clear away the dense growth of reeds between the occupation zone and the lake itself. Ongoing fieldwork as of 2003 in other parts of the lake basin by Tim Schadla-Hall and the Vale of Pickering Research Trust has shown that at least a dozen other sites of the same period are located at various points around the shores and islands of the same lake, though as yet none of these have produced rich finds of bone and antler remains comparable to those from Star Carr itself.

The evidence from Star Carr and the adjacent sites forms part of a broader pattern of rapid human colonization of northern Europe as the ice sheets of the last glaciation rapidly retreated and the preceding open, tundra-like landscapes were replaced by the pioneering birch and pine forests of the early postglacial (Preboreal) period. Sites of similar age and with similar archaeological material have been recorded in Denmark (Klosterlund), southern Sweden (Henninge Boställe), and northern Germany (Duvensee, Friesack, Bedburg-Königshoven) and are generally grouped together under the term "proto-Maglemosian." While these sites provide confirmation that similar patterns of adaptation and culture existed over a large part of the northern European Plain at this time (including, no doubt, large areas of land now submerged below the North Sea) the site of Star Carr remains unique in the extraordinarily rich and varied collection of bone and antler artifacts, and associated food refuse, recovered. It is generally seen not only as the "classic" site for this earliest Mesolithic occupation of northern Europe, but as one of the most important Mesolithic sites so far investigated in Europe.

See alsoArchaeology and Environment (vol. 1, part 1); The Mesolithic of Northwest Europe (vol. 1, part 2); Mount Sandel (vol. 1, part 2).


Clark, J. G. D. Star Carr: A Case Study in Bioarchaeology. Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1972.

——. Excavations at Star Carr. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1954.

Legge, Anthony, and Peter Rowley-Conwy. Star Carr Revisited: A Reanalysis of the Large Mammals. London: Birkbeck College, 1988.

Mellars, Peter, and Petra Dark. Star Carr in Context: NewArchaeological and Palaeoecological Investigations at the Early Mesolithic Site of Star Carr, North Yorkshire. Cambridge, U.K.: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 1998.

Paul Mellars