Excavation of Star Carr (1949–1953)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Between 1949 and 1953, Grahame Clark directed the excavation of Star Carr, a lakeside, early Mesolithic site in northeastern Yorkshire, near the town of Scarborough. The waterlogged nature of the site meant that the preservation of the organic artifacts and remains was excellent. Pollen analysis and the remains of trees at the site were evidence of a lakeside, forested landscape, around two hundred years after the ice cap had retreated.

As the expert on the European Mesolithic, Clark was the ideal director of the excavation. Clark had based his revolutionary books on the Mesolithic period, written in the 1930s, on data produced by other people. Here was his opportunity to excavate and interpret new data and to compare it with previous data sets. Star Carr was an exemplary site.

The assemblage recovered from the site comprised simple microlithic (small) stone tools in the shape of barbs and arrows; flint scraps and burins used for working on antlers and bones; awls and axes; barbed spearheads made from red deer antler; elk antler mattocks for digging; scrapers made from wild ox bone; and a number of what appear to be masks made from red deer antlers, which may have been used as hunting camouflage or for ceremonial purposes. The remains of a wooden paddle were also found. Analysis of the animal remains revealed the subsistence patterns of the occupants and the nature of the social groups who used it. The animals they hunted included red deer, elk, roe deer, wild oxen, elk, wild pigs, and water fowl. There were no fish remains—perhaps they were not available in the lake this early, but the remains of two domestic dogs were found, among the earliest remains of this kind in Europe.

Based on the amount of animal bone found it was estimated that the site supported a group of around twenty-five people annually over a six-year period. However, if the occupation had been more intermittent, then the period of occupation was probably longer. The bone and antler technology, such as sickles and barbed points and arrows, was as distinctively Mesolithic as the lithic artifacts. Clark concluded that Star Carr was a specialized seasonal hunting and butchering site rather than a long-term occupation site, probably used by groups who moved on, depending on the season, to other camps on the coast or up onto the moors in the hills.

Excavations at Star Carr was published in 1954, and it reflected the careful analysis and resulting scope of interpretation by Clark and his colleagues. There were chapters on lake stratigraphy and pollen, animal bones, and the flint, bone, and antler tools.

Since 1954 other interpretations (and further excavations) have been made at Star Carr. It is perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the significance of the site, and the issues initially addressed by Clark, that it has continued to attract such attention and disagreement.

Further Reading Clark, J. G. D. 1932. The Mesolithic Age in Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Clark, J. G. D. 1952. Prehistoric Europe: the economic basis. London: Methuen. Clark, J. G. D. 1954. Excavations at Star Carr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Fagan, B. 2001. Grahame Clark: An intellectual biography of an archaeologist. Boulder, CO: Westview. Legge, A., and P. Rowley-Conwy. 1988. Star Carr revisited. London: Birkbeck College. Mellars, P., and P. Dark. 1998. Star Carr in context. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.


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