Coinciding with the publication of a new, popular book, the Yorkshire Museum is hosting a major exhibition of human artefacts and interpretations of the UK’s most famous and finds-rich Mesolithic landscape at Star Carr in Yorkshire, England. The exhibition is due to open on 24 May 2013* and is widely covered in the archaeological and regional media.
*No news is yet available on the Yorkshire Museum website (as of 23 May)
Bringing together the artefacts previously scattered across many museums and repositories since Clarke’s excavations in the 1950s, the exhibition aims to present the most recent investigations in context—the landscape, the re-colonisation of England (or expansion of the late Glacial “epi-Palaeolithic” communities such as those at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire), the environmental transformations, human beliefs, behaviours, mobility and the material culture that give hints to a complex hunter-gatherer-fisher society. These were modern humans, just like us.
On Thu 30 May 8pm there will also be a UK television Time Team special on Star Carr (Channel 4).
Current archaeological research and interventions in the eastern Vale of Pickering, recently under the leadership of York and Manchester Universities, acknowledge the very short remaining lifespan of previously waterlogged organic remains. What were hard, crisp and tangible testaments to Mesolithic lifestyles—barbed points, supposed “head-dresses”, the working of antler, bone and wood, birch rolls and more—are now feeble ghosts of their former selves, if they survive at all in the peat. Drainage and agricultural activities have desiccated and acidified the waterlogged matrix: it often has the pH of stomach acid today.
Where did they go?
On the other hand, fieldwork since the 1980s and more recently has proven that Star Carr and the Early Mesolithic lakeside activity areas were far more extensive than previously thought. Hoof prints from undomesticated horses have been discovered on Flixton Island—perhaps their last stand? Mobility across a forested, watery landscape becomes apparent by looking at the lithic (flint) distribution and operational chains, from sourcing the raw material, knapping reduction strategies, caching-curation and re-usage behaviours. There’s also now evidence for structures* of some sort and repeated returns to the area over generations. Unlike corollaries in Scandinavia, linked by Doggerland across what is now the North Sea, only human burials remain entirely elusive at Star Carr—for now.
Perhaps ancestors were deposited in the lake, or on islands, now denuded, or far “offshore”? Do we even know what we are looking for? Within a few thousand years the North Sea inundation separated Britain from Europe, and a rather different material culture evolved—the so called Late Mesolithic. One can argue for evolution or revolution, but much more research and dating is needed from the post glacial into the Neolithic where communities with very different life-strategies may have co-existed (N European evidence hints at this).
*Conneller, C. et al. 2012. Substantial settlement in the European Early Mesolithic: new research at Star Carr. ANTIQUITY 86 (344), 1004-1020.
The exhibition is a once-in-a-generation chance to see the most comprehensive and intimate story about our earliest post-glacial ancestors. People just like us, and yet so different. Or perhaps not? How many of our “instinctive” behaviours today bear testament to our hunter-gatherer-fisher past? Maybe we just live longer and refined the BBQ experience? I promise a review when I have seen it.
Recent Press Coverage
Image | Courtesy University of York