From Riches to Rags: rapidly deteriorating wetland archaeology

Project: Research project (funded)Research

Project Details

Key findings

Star Carr is an Early Mesolithic, hunter-gatherer site near Scarborough, North Yorkshire which dates to the 9th millennium cal. BC. Due to their ephemeral nature, hunter-gatherer sites are rare, and Star Carr has become internationally renowned due to the richness of the remarkable organic artefacts and ecofacts deposited on the edge of a lake and subsequently preserved within peat: e.g. harpoons, antler headdresses, mattocks, a wooden paddle. More recent work in the 1980s revealed a timber platform or trackway leading out into the lake. This was constructed of hewn planks, and is the earliest evidence of systematic carpentry in Europe.

Excavation in the waterlogged deposits in 2006/7 demonstrated that the peat is now seriously degraded, largely caused through recent drainage. This has resulted in unusually high acidity (<3.0pH) and peat compression causing bone to become de-mineralised, antler to be flattened through degradation of core tissue, and loss of cellulose in the wood.

Excavations funded by NERC in the summer of 2010 sought to discover more about the timber platforms, to recover further organic artefacts, to produce a detailed environmental context for human activity and to further assess the peat degradation in order to inform management policy for Star Carr as well as other wetland sites in Europe.

The excavations revealed that the worked timber appeared to extend much further along the edge of the old lake shoreline than was previously thought with an extent of over 30 metres suggesting that this is perhaps not a trackway but some sort of lake edge platform. Unfortunately, as anticipated, the wood was extremely fragile which makes an assessment of wood working techniques extremely difficult. However, there are still more questions than answers and the nature of the platform/trackway is still not fully understood.

In most of the trenches there was high acidity and consequently the organic remains had suffered. However, during the re-excavation of one of the original trenches, first dug in 1950, it was found that the back-fill of this trench had not become acidic. Some pieces of bone and antler from these original excavations had been thrown back into the trench and some parts of the trench had not been fully excavated. Because of this, three more rare harpoon points were discovered but the most significant find was a carved, wooden digging stick which, to our knowledge, is unique to the Mesolithic in Europe.

A large number of specialists worked on various aspects of the environmental context, from insects to pollen to oxygen isotope analysis. This integration of techniques is resulting in a fine grained understanding of the build up deposits which can be related to climate and environmental change during human occupation. Further results will emerge following a programme of radiocarbon dating and Bayesian modelling (funded by English Heritage).

Finally, the analysis of the deposits demonstrated that further degradation had taken place since the last excavations and by excavating the 1950s trench it is possible to demonstrate how much compression and decay has taken place over the 60 years. This research is continuing to inform other wetland sites of this period across Europe.
Effective start/end date25/07/1024/06/11