Thursday, January 29, 2009

Star Carr. This seems to have been a minor lake-side platform, not the main camp for the area, from which everyday activities such as hunting, fishing and preparing food and skins was carried out. (Tracey Croft)

Britain’s best-known Mesolithic site, Star Carr, was examined by Professor J.G.D.Clark between 1949 and 1951. It lay on the western edge of the Vale of Pickering, about 3 km south of Seamer (Yorks), on the shore of a former lake that is now filled with peat. The lake had been surrounded by birch trees, and some of these had been cleared and used to build a rough platform of branches and brushwood, on to which lumps of turf and stones had been thrown. The surface was too eroded to leave any trace of dwellings, but these were probably built of skins over a framework of poles or woven reeds. By recording the density of waste material such as bones and flint flakes it was possible to estimate the approximate area occupied, something like 200 m. (219 yd) square, and it was deduced that this would have been utilized by four or five families, perhaps two dozen people. The site was probably an activity area visited from time to time by folk primarily engaged in the food quest, hunting, fishing and gathering wild plants, as well as manufacturing tools and weapons and working skins for clothes.

Examination of the bones found shows that red deer were the main animals hunted, followed by roe deer, elk and wild oxen. There is evidence to show that the animals were selectively culled, perhaps to preserve the strength of the stock. Wild pig also contributed to the diet of the inhabitants; water birds played a small part, and almost certainly fish, though their bones have not been preserved. The bones of a small dog were also found. Plenty of evidence for the use of the bow and spears was present in the form of pointed microliths and barbed bone and antler points. Red deer antlers had been utilized in various ways. Many had deep V-shaped grooves cut into them with sharply pointed flint burins to provide longitudinal splinters which were then carved with barbed points along one edge for harpoons.

The fronts of a number of deer skulls with parts of the antlers still attached seem to have been worn by the men as hunting masks. Holes were cut into the frontlets for attaching to the head and the insides had been hollowed-out to make them light to wear. Whether they were used as decoys, or for magical, ceremonial purposes, perhaps as still remembered in the Abbotts Bromley horn dance, we are unlikely ever to know. Objects identified as ‘mattock heads’ were manufactured from elk antler. A high proportion of flint scrapers for cleaning skins suggests that clothes of animal fur were almost certainly worn, and Star Carr has provided beads of perforated amber, lias and deer teeth as decoration.

The waterlogged nature of the site allowed the preservation of bracket fungus, possibly used for tinder, and rolls of birch bark, perhaps used to make containers or as a source of resin. A wooden paddle (or spade?) suggests that canoes were available, although none were found at the site. Such a canoe is known from Friarton in Perthshire dated to about 6500 BC. The radiocarbon date for Star Carr is around 7500 BC.

Professor Clark saw Star Carr as a winter base camp from which the hunters made their way to the high moors in summer. Today specialists think it more likely to have been used only temporarily between late spring and early summer, and to have been only one of many encampments in that part of east Yorkshire. It is likely that hunting groups travelled 80–160 km (50–100 miles) during the year, following the movements of herds of red deer, and camping at familiar stopping places beside crags or streams, that were used time and again, year after year. The length of their stay at each camp was dependent on the amount of food available, not only to man, but to the animals he hunted as well. Excavation of moorland sites shows the same familiar range of microlithic tools, though the heavy axes are usually missing, probably reflecting environmental differences to the lowland areas. In southern Britain a few rock-shelters were occupied, typified by the site at High Rocks in Sussex. As people followed their traditional routes paths formed, fording places were established and sources of raw material were exploited. Gradually a network of well-worn trackways emerged which were ancestral to those of later prehistoric times.



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