History of research

Finding the site and the initial excavations

Credit for finding the site of Star Carr goes to John Moore, a local amateur archaeologist who found 10 sites in the area from 1947. He carried out a small excavation at Star Carr in 1948 and found some flint, bone and antler. Contact was made with Grahame Clark, lecturer of Prehistory at the University of Cambridge who was looking to excavate a Mesolithic site which preserved organic materials such as bone, antler and wood. From 1949-1951 Clark excavated Star Carr and published his findings in 1954.

Clark uncovered an amazing array of finds. On what would have been the lakeshore was a platform that appeared to have been made by people. On top and within this platform the excavators found a range of animal remains: red deer, roe deer, wild boar, elk, auroch (wild cow), birds, beaver, pine marten, hedgehog, hare and badger. Finds of wolf were also made, later thought to be domesticated dog.

There were a lot of flint artefacts and waste including scrapers, probably used for cleaning hides of animals, axes for woodworking and ‘microliths’ which were used as the tips of arrows. There was considerable evidence for antler and bone working into tools and particularly barbed points (perhaps used as spears for killing animals, fish etc). What is incredible about these is that 193 have been found on the site, which accounts for roughly 97% ever found in the UK! So, a concentration like this is very important.

Another set of amazing finds were the headdresses. These are made out of the skulls and antlers of red deer, smoothed out inside and pierced, thought to be for wearing on the head. A total of 21 of these were found, and apart from a few in Europe no other discoveries of these have been made again...they are very rare. There are various interpretations as to how they were used, including perhaps worn during stag hunts, or perhaps in ‘ritual’ ceremonies, as is known in the ethnographic record.

Excavations by the Vale of Pickering Research Trust

The site soon became famous in the archaeological world because of the incredible discoveries which had been made but it wasn’t until the 1980s that further research was carried out to investigate the palaeoenvironment. In 1985 a trench was excavated about 30 metres to the east of the original excavations by Clark. It was thought that this area should be archaeologically sterile however an unexpected concentration of archaeological material was found.

At the lower end, the trench was excavated in two halves and at this point a concentration of large wood segments were noted, but because sporadic fragments of wood had been found earlier in the sequence it was first assumed these were a natural accumulation. It was only during the second week, however, it became evident that they had more archaeological significance. Those found in the western half of the trench were recorded and lifted. These timbers were incredibly important because they had been split and worked—they were not a natural accumulation as found in Clark's trench, and so they represented the earliest evidence of carpentry in Europe.

Recent research by Milner, Conneller and Taylor

From 2003 further fieldwork took place, with fieldworking in the first year and small scale test pits in 2004 and 2005. Small trenches were excavated in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010, and during this period, excavation on the dryland revealed some more exciting finds including evidence for a structure with postholes and a hollow in the middle. This is the ‘earliest house in Britain’. Unfortunately this research also revealed that the peat had deteriorated badly since earlier excavations due to drainage, and that many of the organic remains had not survived or had turned to jelly.

In 2012 we were awarded a European Research Council grant to carry out more work at the site on a much larger scale and with a team of highly skilled specialists. Excavation was carried out between 2013-2015 and further structures, platforms, headdresses, and barbed points have been found. We now have a much better idea of how the site was used and occupied through time and the results of our findings are currently being written up.

Project director Nicky Milner excavating the site
Project director Nicky Milner excavating the site

Tim Schadla-Hall and Barry Taylor on site
Tim Schadla-Hall and Barry Taylor on site

In situ waterlogged deposits