An exhibition at Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology brings together artefacts from early excavations at Star Carr, the latest finds from the celebrated site, and more, to conjure up what Mesolithic life was like beside Lake Flixton. Lucia Marchini went along to take a look.
After Star Carr’s initial discovery by local amateur archaeologist John Moore in the 1940s, the Yorkshire site was excavated by Grahame Clark, a professor at the University of Cambridge. Between 1949 and 1951, the team led by Clark unearthed a wide range of well-preserved artefacts made out of organic materials such as wood, bone, and antler. Many of Clark’s finds – some of which are exceptionally delicate – entered Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where they have been held since.
During more recent excavations led by Nicky Milner, Chantal Conneller, and Barry Taylor between 2003 and 2015 (see CA 282 and 349), new finds from the site – including the remains of the oldest house known in Britain – have greatly expanded our understanding of Mesolithic life at Star Carr. Bringing together some of the artefacts from the latest excavations along with material that has been in the MAA’s stores for some 70 years, the museum’s exhibition A Survival Story: prehistoric life at Star Carr introduces the remarkable site and the wider context of Mesolithic Britain, as well as taking a look at how excavations and ways of interpreting archaeological evidence have changed since Clark’s day.
Around 11,500 years ago, as the climate was rapidly warming after the last Ice Age, people moved across Britain’s changing landscapes; a small group settled on the shore of the long-vanished Lake Flixton in the Vale of Pickering, North Yorkshire. As the lake was covered in peat, an impressive number of organic finds have survived in the waterlogged ground at Star Carr, providing evidence of repeated episodes of occupation between c.9300 and 8500 BC. Discoveries from the Mesolithic often comprise simply a scatter of stone tools, so the wealth of finds from the site on show offers a detailed snapshot of lakeside life at this time.
Particular attention is paid to the environment after the Ice Age, and, for a family audience, to bringing home the idea that people in the Mesolithic were like us and had similar concerns (such as food, warmth, and comfort) that they addressed using the resources available to them. Aurochs, wild boar, and elk roamed around, as did hedgehogs, and all of these animals seem to have been on the Mesolithic menu. Bracket fungus that grew naturally on birch trees around the lake is flammable when dried, and this was used as tinder for fire. Birchbark served the same function, tightly wound into cigar-like portable tinder rolls. Star Carr’s inhabitants made the most of what was on their doorsteps, but finds from further afield – such as an imported amber pendant – show they also had more widespread contacts.
Some of the finds are small, but there are many of them, particularly barbed antler points. Excavations at Star Carr have uncovered a total of 227 antler points, making up more than 90% of those found in Britain so far. They come in different sizes, with small ones used for shooting birds or spearing fish, and larger ones for hunting bigger prey like elk, deer, and wild cows. They could have a hole pierced through them and be threaded with sinew or plant fibre in order to serve as a harpoon. The points on display differ in quality as well as size. Most show signs of use and some are broken. Others are unfinished, and as such Star Carr is a useful source of material showing different stages of the manufacturing process – something that is illustrated in the exhibition by a series of photographs showing archaeologist Ben Elliott making barbed points.
The most famous of the Star Carr finds are the enigmatic headdresses crafted from deer skulls, with holes drilled into them and parts of the antlers removed. Recent fieldwork uncovered 12, which, added to those found by Clark, bring the total from the site to 33. A couple of examples, from both Clark’s earlier excavations and the latest project, are included in the displays. With cracked and brittle bone and detached and broken antlers, the comparatively poor preservation of one headdress excavated in 2013 emphasises the environmental changes that are happening in the area as the peat dries out, leading to the deterioration of artefacts.
Cutting-edge 3D prints of several other Star Carr headdresses are shown as a group, making the differences between them easily noticeable. Some headdresses are smaller than others, and could have been worn by children. Most are made of red deer skulls, but there is also one 3D-printed roe deer headdress on display. It remains uncertain if there was a particular reason behind the Mesolithic craftsmen using different deer species.
The headdresses are uncommon artefacts, with only three similar objects known elsewhere (in Germany), which raises the questions of why there are so many at Star Carr. There is, of course, still the overarching question of what they were used for – were they worn as hunting disguises, during ceremonies or dances, or both?
Addressing these interpretations, the MAA brings out some of its anthropological and photographic material to explore the importance of antlers in different parts of the world. In California, members of the Hupa tribe hunt wearing deer disguises, while in Inner Mongolia, Ewenki hunters imitate the call of a male elk during the mating season with a carved wooden elk lure.
A shaman’s costume from elsewhere in Inner Mongolia shows a spiritual element to the significance of antlers. Four-pronged antlers appear on the hat, and the number of prongs indicates how skilled the shaman is, with seven prongs marking the top level. In northern Ghana, Talensi men hold horns to their head in a dance that mimics antelopes at the funeral of the head of their group, while at an annual dance in the village of Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire, some participants wear reindeer antlers. The latter dance, perhaps originally performed to secure plentiful hunts in nearby forests, was first recorded in 1686, but radiocarbon dating has revealed that some of the antlers date to the 11th century, and so the tradition may stretch back even further. The range of images and artefacts within this section of the exhibition highlights how there are many different beliefs and traditions regarding antlers, which, as they shed and regrow, can be associated with cycles of life, death, and rebirth; it places Star Carr’s headdresses in a far-reaching framework of cross-cultural comparisons.
A Survival Story: prehistoric life at Star Carr runs at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge until 30 December. The museum is open 10.30am-4.30pm Tuesday to Saturday and 12-4.30pm Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, visit maa.cam.ac.uk.
This review appeared in CA 351.