Preserved in peat: the race to uncover our Stone Age past at Star Carr

As one of the most important Mesolithic sites in Europe, the peat-filled depths of Star Carr, near Scarborough, have revealed a host of sensational archaeological finds.

Star Carr (Credit: Guzelian/Lorne Campbell)

Under the guidance of Professor Nicky Milner, archaeologists from York, working with a team from the Universities of Manchester and Chester, uncovered the remains of the UK’s earliest known ‘house’ and a platform of worked wood - the earliest evidence of carpentry in Europe.

The quality of the finds at Star Carr owes much to the preserving qualities of the peat. But studies show the ground is drying out and becoming more acidic. The race is now on to explore new areas and ensure the story of Star Carr is fully documented and understood.

“One of the most exciting things about the site is that only about five per cent of it has been excavated. We think the potential for uncovering further structures and artefacts is significant,” said Professor Milner.

“But unfortunately, the changing ground conditions are having a negative impact on the finds – some of the antler and wood we have found has become fragile while bone found in the wetter areas has lost its mineral content making it less rigid. This highlights the importance of capturing as much information as we can now.”

Hunter gatherers

The finds, particularly the discovery of the house, attracted worldwide media attention and challenged pre-conceived ideas about the hunter gatherer communities who lived among the woodlands and wetlands in the area over 11,000 years ago.

“Previously, we thought hunter gatherers roamed across the landscape and did not settle,” explained Professor Milner. “Our research at Star Carr suggests that in fact this North Yorkshire site was occupied for between 200 to 500 years. It suggests that people of this era were more attached to settlements than was previously thought.”

Ice Age

The project also includes a study of climate change at the end of the last Ice Age and the excavation of the nearby Flixton Island site which is around 500 years older than Star Carr and revealed the remains of a rare Late Palaeolithic horse butchery site.

Research teams are using cutting edge scientific techniques to find out what activities were carried out on these sites, what food was eaten, what artefacts were made and how structures were made.

The discoveries at Star Carr and the adjoining Flixton Island site featured in public exhibitions, booklets and site open days. The site has also generated major media interest - Flixton Island will feature in a forthcoming series of the BBC’s ‘Digging for Britain.’

“There are so many unanswered questions about the site – what it was used for and how people lived. Every time we make a new discovery, the better our understanding of Star Carr becomes, and how this site relates to such a fascinating period of our history,” said Professor Milner.

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The potential for uncovering further structures and artefacts is significant ... but unfortunately, the changing ground conditions are having a negative impact on the finds.”

Professor Nicky Milner
Department of Archaeology
Featured researcher
Professor Nicky Milner

Professor Nicky Milner

An expert on the Mesolithic period and the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.

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