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The BBC series, ‘Museums in Quarantine’, recently featured one of the most enigmatic artefacts in British Archaeology, the 11,000-year-old red deer antler headdresses discovered at the site of Star Carr in North Yorkshire. 

Recent research by staff at Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Chester, in collaboration with colleagues from the Universities of York and Newcastle, has shed new light on these mysterious artefacts, and the beliefs of the people who made them. This research also led to the team being awarded ‘Research Project of the Year’ in the 12th annual ‘Current Archaeology’ awards in February.

The Star Carr site dates to the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age, a time when Europe was inhabited by communities of hunter-gatherers. It was first excavated in the late 1940s by Grahame Clark, professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, who discovered hundreds of artefacts made from red deer antler, and thousands of animal bones in peat deposits that had formed at the edge of an ancient lake. These finds, including the headdresses, have fascinated archaeologists for decades, but until now they have been something of an archaeological mystery.

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Archaeology Star Carr University of Chester
A projectile point made from red deer antler recorded during recent excavations by the team.

Recent excavations by the Universities of Chester, York and Newcastle have shown that what Clark found was part of a much larger settlement that was established by a group of hunter-gatherers on the edge of a lake a few hundred years after the end of the last Ice Age. Over thousands of years, the lake gradually filled in with thick deposits of peat, and this has helped to preserve evidence of the people who lived there. As well as the remains of houses and wooden platforms, the archaeologists found hundreds of animal bones and antler artefacts, including several more headdresses, which had been deposited into the shallow water along the former lake shore. The team believes that these, as well as the finds discovered by Clark, are the remains of ritual feasting and ceremonial activities that were carried out to ensure success in future hunting expeditions. The headdresses may have been worn during these ceremonies, after which they were deposited into the water along with the animal bones and other artefacts. 

Senior Lecturer in Chester’s Department of History and Archaeology, Dr Barry Taylor, jointly directed the excavations with Professor Nicky Milner from the University of York and Dr Chantal Conneller from the University of Newcastle. According to Dr Taylor: 

“Stone Age societies are often described as being primitive, with rudimentary technology and little in the way of culture. In contrast, Star Carr shows us that Mesolithic people were just like us, with sophisticated forms of technology and complex beliefs that explained how the world worked and their place within it”.

The importance of the project was acknowledged earlier this year when the team won ‘Research Project of the Year’ in the 12th annual ‘Current Archaeology’ awards. The Star Carr project was one of six archaeological projects that were nominated for the award after appearing in the “Current Archaeology” magazine, and the winner was decided by a public vote. The win follows a number of earlier success for the project, including Best Archaeological Innovation at the 2016 British Archaeology Awards. Now that the work at Star Carr has finished, the team is working on the results of a second excavation they carried out in the area, which they hope will tell them more about how human societies adapted to climate change at the end of the last Ice Age.

In order to learn more about the beliefs of the people who made the headdresses, Dr Taylor is working on a new project investigating hunter-gatherer ritual activity at other sites close to Star Carr. This project, which is run with Dr Amy Gray Jones (also from the University of Chester) and colleagues at the Universities of Manchester and York, has led to important new discoveries to help us to understand how these communities understood their world.

According to Dr Taylor: “From the evidence we have discovered from Star Carr, and other sites in the area, we think that these Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers believed that animals, plants and other aspects of the natural world were sentient beings in the same way as humans. Because of this, they had to treat the remains of animals and plants in respectful ways so that they didn’t cause them offence”.

The results of the Star Carr excavations were published by White Rose Press, and are available to download free of charge: Volume 1 and Volume 2

The team also wrote a short book about the site as part of the Council for British Archaeology’s ‘Archaeology For All’ series.

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