A Star is born

Star Carr, near Scarborough, was a major archaeological site long before this August’s announcement that they had found the UK’s oldest house. Since the site’s discovery in the 1940s, there have been a series of stunning finds and many of the most eminent archaeologists consider it to be even more important than Stonehenge! Radiocarbon dating takes it back to the Mesolithic era, around 10,500 years ago. This was the time of the hunter-gathers, where they moved from place to place with the seasons using temporary shelters. Surprisingly, at Star Carr the evidence is there for all to see.

Dr Nicky Milner excavating the UK's oldest house - at Star Carr
Dr Nicky Milner excavating the UK's oldest house - at Star Carr

A lot of new and general knowledge and understanding about the Mesolithic era and its communities has been gained from Star Carr over many years of excavation. Its waterlogged, peaty soil gives the site exceptional preservation qualities and many organic artefacts, including the broken paddle from a prehistoric dugout canoe, have been found in good condition. Indeed, during the very first excavations in 1954 Grahame Clark found antler skulls that had been worked into headdresses. They may have been used in some kind of ritual, or as decoys to tempt deer closer to the hunters. A staggering twenty one have been found so far! Bone tools, worked flints, arrows, over 200 barbed points, beads and mattocks are just a few of the items discovered at the site.

Star Carr's antler headdress
Star Carr's antler headdress

Star Carr was on the edge of a large ancient lake that formed at the end of the last ice age. The land was lightly wooded with reed swamps around part of the lake. Animals were plentiful and there is evidence that red deer, elk, boar and auroch were all common and hunted by the people of Star Carr. Most probably they had travelled from Europe across Doggerland, now under the North Sea, which was dry land at that time. No sign of cultivation has been found but there is evidence of deliberate burning – which would have encouraged new shoots to grow, enticing game to gather in the vicinity. Domesticated dog skulls have also been found.

The new “oldest house” has a ring of 18 post holes, is 3.5m in diameter around a sunken floor, possibly with a central hearth as burnt flints were found amongst the 20-30cm layer of moss and reeds discovered on the floor. The height of the house is unknown and it may have had either a wooden or a hide roof as the materials used in its building have not been found. Another big surprise about the house was that it was in use for between 200 and 500 years! and was probably rebuilt or repaired several times. The previous oldest house was also longlived but was found only to be used during one season each year.

Star Carr
Star Carr

Another surprise for the archaeologists was the discovery of a large wooden platform extending out into the lake. This was no ordinary platform: the wood had been deliberately split into planks about 3cm thick and carefully laid in parallel, providing a level standing area over the water, probably for ritual depositions. It seems Mesolithic people were skilled carpenters as well as hunters!

Digging continues at Star Carr and it is estimated that in sixty years of excavation less than 5 per cent of the site has been identified. Sadly, due to increased water extraction and the lack of rainfall, the peat is drying out and the fantastic preservation of the site is at risk. In fact there was no dig in 2009 because the peat was too dry.

All too soon there may be no more of the amazingly preserved artefacts left to discover.

Photos courtesy of Star Carr & Dr Nicky Milner, Senior lecturer @ York University

By Rose Palmer

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