Digging Seamer Carr 1985-6 | A few Mesolithic Memories of VP85

Seamer Carr 1985I came across these old pictures, showing their age a bit (and mine), from the excavations at Seamer Carr, not far from Star Carr in the Vale of Pickering, North Yorkshire.

Located in the path of a whiffy landfill (or more accurately “floating on peat”) site, the open area excavation was part of a bigger environmental project to reveal the extent of post-glacial Lake Pickering (more properly Lake Flixton), on which Star Carr is but one of now many Early and Late Mesolithic activity areas. I like the later stuff most, and at least one microlith array is known (i.e. an arrowhead configuration).

scan0010I was a volunteer under-grad at Durham (1984-7) and when not digging on the North York Moors, East Yorkshire or Poland, recording Anglo-Saxon churches in Tynedale or cataloguing Roman Samian Ware in the Old Fulling Museum attic, I squelched at Seamer Carr and in a few 1x1s at Star Carr.

It rained every day except one. It was one of the coldest summers on record. A force 9 gale laid every tent to waste despite 4 foot stakes—I slept in dad’s car in year 2 and learnt a thing or two about shift gears. We shan’t talk about the Elsan loos, nor about blue not being my favourite colour anymore.

scan0011   scan0009

However, we all delighted in warm team spirit, hot tea, weekly showers, Helen Patterson’s wonderful cuisine, Schadla-Hall dry wit, Ed Cloutman’s auger, fine Yorkshire beer, and laughs at the expense of the last person to be submerged to the waist, or higher, in the sump pit—”soak away” would not be accurate. The lithics were fine (very few on the spoil heap), dead horses emerged (well, one) and a bit of antler at “the other place”. Great memories, dried out, like the peat.



After the Ice | Major Star Carr exhibition opens at Yorkshire Museum | Mesolithic

Updated 24 May 2013

Star Carr new excavations 2010Coinciding with the publication of a new popular book, the Yorkshire Museum is hosting a major exhibition of artefacts and interpretations of the UK’s most famous and finds-rich Mesolithic landscape at Star Carr in Yorkshire, England. The exhibition is open from 24 May 2013 for a year and is widely covered in the archaeological and regional media.

Bringing together the artefacts previously scattered across many museums and repositories since Clark’s excavations in the 1950s, the exhibition aims to present the most recent investigations in context—the landscape, the re-colonisation of Britain (or expansion of the late Glacial “epi-Palaeolithic” long-blade 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).

Acid Attack

IMG_4349Current 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, shale beads, 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.

Image | Star Carr excavations 2010 (Microburin)

Where did they go?

StarCarrReconOn 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, at around 9000 cal BC. 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, re-usage and discard behaviours. There’s also now evidence for structures* of some sort and repeated returns to the area over generations. Unlike corollaries in southern Scandinavia, linked by Doggerland across what is now the North Sea, only human burials remain entirely elusive at Star Carr—for now.

*Conneller, C. et al. 2012. Substantial settlement in the European Early Mesolithic: new research at Star Carr. ANTIQUITY 86 (334), 1004-1020.

Click to viewIf not left to the elements, perhaps the dead were deposited in the lake, or on islands now denuded, or far “offshore”? Watery places retained significance throughout the prehistoric period—were the many barbed points deposited rather than discarded? 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 (northern European evidence hints at this).

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.


Also coinciding with the exhibition, the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) in York have published the online Star Carr Archive, funded by English Heritage, “with the primary aims of locating and cataloguing as many of the finds and excavation records as possible in order to enable further research”.

“Moore’s paper archive is missing. There is no known paper archive from Clark’s excavations and it is thought that all records must have been destroyed once the monograph (Clark 1954) had been published.”

Inevitably over the last 60 years, and more so with the separation of many of the written records, artefacts and ecofacts, some materials have been lost or misplaced. This initiative identifies, records and consolidates what remains into a single report.

Recent Press Coverage

Image top | Courtesy University of York

Här har aldrig varit tomt | This place has never been empty | Mesolithic Sweden

Exceptional Mesolithic landscape—or indeed “wetscape”—at Motala Ström in East Middle Sweden.

MotalaStrom_videoFurther to the last post about Kanaljorden and the impaled Mesolithic skulls, this wonderful short film was released on 25 May 2012 (18 mins with English subtitles) and takes a landscape perspective to showcase some of the incredible organic finds, as well as lithics too. It’s beautifully produced and features—in addition to breath-taking archaeology—some of the inimitable heroes of Scandinavian and Mesolithic archeology: Lars Larsson, T. Douglas Price and Fredrik Hallgren, project manager.

Decisions decisions

You can make up your own mind about the “phallus”, plus watch some of the beautifully decorated artefacts—dagger, club and more. As the documentary makes clear, Sweden is blessed with contract archaeology that allows extensive and wide-area investigations. It’s compelling stuff indeed, with over 400,000 finds since 1999, and continuing.

Make contact

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Impaled Mesolithic Skulls in a Lake | Kanaljorden, Motala, Sweden still chills

Kanaljorden_Motala_Sweden_SiteIt may not be British Mesolithic, and it may be oldish news—originally press-released in 2011—but these discoveries still chill the soul. Visually macabre they may also be, but they offer ultra-rare glimpses of hunter-gatherer behaviours and social complexity. The site, discovered ahead of a railway construction, would have been interesting anyway, even without the extraordinary finds.



Adapted from original press release and online sources. Analysis continues and final reports are still some way off. Photos Fredrik Hallgren / Stiftelsen Kulturmiljövård.

Archaeological excavations at the site Kanaljorden in the town of Motala, Östergötland in Central Sweden (2009–11) unearthed a complex Mesolithic site with ceremonial depositions of human crania in a small lake. The skulls have been handled through a complex ceremony that involved the displaying of skulls on stakes and the deposition of skulls in water. The rituals were conducted on an enormous (14×14 m) stone-packing constructed on the bottom of a shallow lake.

Kanaljorden_Motala_Sweden_SkullBased on the more intact skulls eleven individuals have been identified, both men and women, ranging in age between infants and middle age. Two of the skulls had wooden stakes inserted into the cranium. In both cases the stakes were inserted the full length from the base to the top of the skull. In another case a temporal bone of one individual, a woman, was found placed inside the skull of another woman. Besides human skulls, the find material also included a smaller number of post-cranial human bones, bones from animals as well as artefacts of stone, wood, bone and antler. The skulls have been dated to 6212–5717 Cal BC and two dates on worked wood 5972–5675 Cal BC), making them seven to eight thousand years old. The excavations were conducted by Stiftelsen Kulturmiljövård, led by Fredrik Hallgren, in advance of the construction of a new railway.

“It will be interesting to hear of the results of the laboratory analysis of stable isotopes and—if very lucky—aDNA: are the remains of “dearly departed” or “trophies of defeated enemies.” Another interesting question is what were the state of the skulls when they were put on the stakes? Were they recently chopped-off heads or were they already de-fleshed? No other finds from that period offer any comparative material so it truly is a great mystery we are dealing with here!” – Tænketanken (blog)

Regional Background

Kanaljorden_Motala_Sweden_Leister“The town of Motala was brought to the attention of Mesolithic researchers ten years ago with the excavation of the large Mesolithic settlement Strandvägen, located by the shore of the river Motala Ström. The Strandvägen dig uncovered lithics, a large faunal assemblage as well as numerous tools of bone and antler, categories of finds seldom found in Central Sweden. The excavations at Strandvägen and another riverside site, Verkstadsvägen, continued through 2009–2011 in parallel with the dig at Kanaljorden. While both Strandvägen and Verkstadsvägen are located directly by the shore on opposite sides of the river, Kanaljorden is situated 80m from the river and instead on the edge of a small lake, now a peat fen.” more »

Read more

Lithics Studies Society | Journal 33 2012 now out | Why not join?

Lithics33The latest journal, No. 33 for 2012 is just out, and sexy. Why not join the Lithic Studies Society?

Flint and stone tools have been manufactured and used since the earliest times and arguably they represent the world’s oldest technology. The Lithic Studies Society was founded in 1979 to advance the international study of lithic industries, and particularly flaked and ground artefacts, in the broadest possible context. Member’s interests are diverse, spanning Palaeolithic to historic periods across many areas of the world. The Society provides a convivial forum for the exchange of ideas and information.

The Society has over 350 members from four continents. Membership is growing steadily, and they are always delighted to welcome new members. The Society is open to all who have, or would like to develop, an interest in lithic artefacts of any period. Members receive:

The membership year runs from 1st October to 30th September and the journal Lithics is published annually. The AGM takes place in October and all members are welcome. Individual rates are £15.76 (including 76p PayPal levy).

National Museum Denmark | Highlights of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic collections

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving recently completed a round trip by train from London to Copenhagen via Hamburg, I’d love to share some of the highlights from the outstanding—content, preservation and display—early prehistory at the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen (Danish | English). It’s probably the best Mesolithic exhibition I have seen and I can but urge a visit if you have not yet been.

Between The Bogs and The Sea

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe exceptional preservation of organic materials in Denmark (also northern Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, southerm Scandinavia and Baltics)—including human beings, clothing and artefacts—relies on two factors: (a) the rich, wet, anaerobic conditions in their fast-disappearing peat bogs; (b) that many Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic activity areas now sit below sea level, a reflection of significant sea level rises after the last glaciation (although some land in the west if Jutland has risen by 50-60m after the weight of ice was removed, and continues to rise very gradually, as in Scotland—although southern England is still sinking).

Image | Broddenbjerg idol, dated to the late Bronze Age (not Mesolithic, unfortunately). More info »

Star Carr 2010We do have similar preservation in the UK, but far less frequent. Sites such as Star Carr & Flixton, Uxbridge, Thatcham, Bouldnor, Stainton West, Amesbury and Goldcliff East are/were rare survivals. Modern land drainage, development, together with industrial-scale agriculture threaten to destroy the tiny fraction that might yet remain. Star Carr will be (organically) gone, dissolved in acid or dried out within our generation, after 10,000 years in soggy peace. Star Carr 2010 pictured ↑

0430-Cop101If you’re interested in the travel itinerary, briefly, and it is well worth doing by train, here’s a rough summary. I used the Deutsche Bahn website (timetables) and then called the UK DB office to book everything, and they were able to find the best fares. There’s also some excellent advice on the brilliant website Seat61 that includes other options such as a ferry from the UK and the Köln or Hamburg sleeper trains to Copenhagen.

Itinerary Summary

  • London St Pancras Eurostar d. 06.50 (weekday) to Bruxelles-Midi
  • Change to DB ICE 15 to Hamburg Hbf (via Aachen) changing at Köln to ICE 2218, a. 17.12 | Overnight in Hamburg
  • Hamburg to Copenhagen on DB ICE 2218 direct d. 09.28, train boards ferry at Puttgarden (DE) to Rødby (DK) for 45 mins and great fun, a. 14.14
  • Two days in Copenhagen also visiting Roskilde Viking Ship Museum and Malmö Sweden (via the amazing Øresund Bridge) both about 35 mins by train from Copenhagen
  • Copenhagen to Hamburg on ICE 34 direct d. 11.44, a. 16.16 | Overnight in Hamburg
  • Hamburg (ICE 587) to Bruxelles-Midi by ICE trains (weekend) d. 10.53 with changes at Hannover (ICE 650) and Köln (ICE 14), a. 17.35
  • Bruxelles-Midi to London St Pancras by last Eurostar d. 19.52 (to be safe), a. 21.06

Some panorama views to tempt you – more below too. L to R | The Vig aurochs, Amber carvings and pendants, the dugout boat from Broksø (Early Neolithic) →


Pictures | Click to enlarge | Taken in “museum mode” without flash – sorry for the quality. This is a selection only since there’s so much more in the museum, all compelling. The Bronze and Iron Age collections are particularly disturbing, given the degree of preservation (with often palpable human violence, and nice wool costumes).

Navigating Danish Early Prehistory

Like archaeology in most other countries, Denmark’s is littered with “Cultures” or “Techno-complexes” derived from 19th and early 20th Century attempts to rationalise (and typologise) material culture—artefacts and common feature traits such as burial practices or settlement types—against a chronological “evolution”. Cultures, in this sense, are groups of like traits usually named after a “type site” or region. So, for example, we have the Creswellian (after Creswell Crags in Derbyshire) as the type site for upper Palaeolithic, late glacial lithics and bone & antler artefacts. Here’s my rough attempt at unraveling Denmark’s culturescape:

Cultural Period Dates BC Chronozone Sea Level Economy UK Equivalency

Late Palaeolithic

Hamburgian 13,500 – 11,100 Warm Bølling
Glacial Dryas II
Warm Allerød
90m lower Mobile hunters, tundra Creswellian
Federmesser & Brommean 11,900 – 10,700 Allerød interstadial Mobile hunters, tundra, ameliorating
Ahrensburgian 10,500 – 9000 Younger Dryas glacial to Preboreal
60m lower Mobile hunters Presence in Scotland, Orkney, Hebrides, England


Maglemosian 9600 – 6000 Preboreal to Boreal
30m to 5m lower, 1m / 100 years, isostatic land uplift in west 50 – 60m, less in east Mobile hunter-gatherer-fishers, persistent places Early Mesolithic
Star Carr
Kongemose 6000 – 5200 Atlantic
Warm and moist
0.5 – 2m fluctuations in 500 yr cycles (Littorina fluctuations) Mobile hunter-gatherer-fishers, persistent places Late Mesolithic

Mesolithic – Neolithic transition

Ertebølle Early 5300 – 4500
Late 4500 – 3950
Atlantic to Subboreal
Peat bogs forming
Mobile hunter-gatherer-fishers, persistent places, shell middens, pottery Late Mesolithic


Funnelbeaker 4100 – 2800 Subboreal As today Animal husbandry (cows, pigs), emmer and barley crops Early Neolithic

Stronsay_flintsAhrensburgian arrowheads from Stronsay, Orkney Islands (Scotland) →

The Tåderup Elk drowned while being hunted around 6700 BC | Early flint arrowheads (Hamburgian and Ahrensburgian – compare with the Orkney examples above | Antler barbed points (upper group retain their flint barbs) | 8,000 years of arrowheads and microliths ↓


The Aurochs from Vig (2m high) | A wild boar | Bone and antler tools | Two Ertebølle arrow shafts with tranchet flint arrowheads still in place (birch resin glue) ↓


Finds from very early Hamburgian and Ahrensburgian campsites | Flint assemblage | Paddle and bow ↓


Bone and antler “daggers” with flint blades still in place | Fishing trap | Musical instruments including mouth bow and drum beater | Selection of Ertebølle artefacts towards the transition to agriculture | Late Ertebølle grave goods ↓


And Finally into the Neolithic

Some amber bling, a little trepanation to relieve pressure, signs of violence (an arrowhead in the sternum and a hole in the head) ↓



A bit of reading

  • Andersen, S. H. 2009. Ronæs Skov: Marinarkæologiske undersøgelser af en kystboplads fra Ertebølletid. Jysk Arkæologisk Selskabs Skrifter 64 | Underwater sites with amazing preservation
  • OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABlankholm, H. P. 2008. Southern Scandinavia in G. Bailey & P. Spikins (eds) Mesolithic Europe. Cambridge: University Press | State of knowledge in regional summaries
  • Eriksen, B. V. (ed.) 2006. Stenalderstudier: Tidligt mesolitiske jægere of samlere i Sydskandinavien. Jysk Arkæologisk Selskabs Skrifter 55 | Early Mesolithic research papers with English summaries
  • Vang Petersen, P. 2008. FLINT fra Danmarks oldtid. Forlaget Museerne.dk | No English, but still a useful guide to flint sources, technologies and typologies