Beyond Star Carr: The Mesolithic in Northern England

The excavation of a Mesolithic site on Swineshaw Moor, Tameside, in the central Pennines, conducted by the Tameside Archaeology Society with Ron Cowell of Liverpool Museum

The excavation of a Mesolithic site on Swineshaw Moor, Tameside, in the central Pennines, conducted by the Tameside Archaeology Society with Ron Cowell of Liverpool Museum

As a discipline archaeology is focussed upon, perhaps often obsessed by, material culture. The analysis of form, fabric, and function, whether it is a single object or a landscape, is at the heart of such study. This approach is the chief way for archaeologists to understand the past and to attempt the unrecoverable – the motives of people in the past. It is one of the reasons archaeologists love to produce catalogues, databases, and hunt for the type-site: a single monument that will typify a landscape, people, or period which can be used as a model for further research. The Mesolithic lakeside settlement at Star Carr is just such a monument. It is one of the most famous sites in Prehistoric Europe and was first excavated in 1949-51. The latest research, which has highlighted the extent to which the former mere deposits of Lake Flixton have dried out since the mid-20th century, as well as the discovery of a Mesolithic ‘house’, is published this month in a monograph by the CBA.1

However, there is more to the Mesolithic than Star Carr, as last night’s Channel 4 Time Team TV special on the Mesolithic tsunami, Star Carr, and Doggerland (the prehistoric North Sea plain) demonstrated.2 This point was made repeatedly at the recent CBA North West Spring conference (9 May) at Manchester. The subject was Mesolithic society in northern England and the north-western Irish Sea basin with seven papers of fresh research undertaken in the last five years.

Andy Myers set the scene with an overview of models of landuse and movement based upon a decade of research. Paul Clark looked at the massive, industrial-scale, excavations by Oxford Archaeology of a riverside Mesolithic site at Stainton West on the River Eden in the path of the Carlisle bypass: this produced tens of thousands of flint tools and waterlogged structures. Randy Donahue looked at the progress of identifying the source of black chert from Yorkshire and revealed the prospect of being able to identify specific locations where this material was exploited – and in the process revealed the huge ranges covered by Mesolithic groups. Alison Burns discussed more personal evidence in the form of the fossilised foot prints on the Formby foreshore of Merseyside: deer, auroch, birds, and people were constantly frequenting a waterside environment re-using set routes through a wetland landscape. Paul Preston looked at the technology of stone tools recovered from the thousands of Mesolithic sites preserved beneath the blanket peats of the central Pennines; the best-preserved and densist area of Mesolithic occupation surviving in Europe. In contrast Fraser Brown described the thousands of flints from just a single Mesolithic house excavated at Ronaldsway airport on the Isle of Man. Ron Cowell finished off the day in style with the recently discovered Mesolithic structures as Lunt Meadows, a few miles south-east of Formby: another possible house site.

Three themes emerged from this day; the long-range movement of peoples; the use of rivers as routes ways to open up the landscape; and the widespread use of Mesolithic ‘houses’, that is a permanent dwelling. A major difference between the Star Carr research and the sites discussed at the CBA North West spring conference3 is that most of the latter were investigated as part of developer-funded rescue archaeology – there is no chance to re-investigate most of these sites. There remains an academic/professional divide in archaeology which honey-pot sites such as Star Carr can be seen as perpetuating; the academics dig the unthreatened sites using painstaking techniques and the professionals conduct rescue archaeology within a short timescale with only partial excavation possible. In reality, the excavation techniques used by each group are no different (indeed at Carlisle and Ronaldsway new forms of detailed excavation recording have been used) and both approaches are perfectly valid types of research. Ironically, Star Carr itself has now turned into a rescue archaeology dig because of the continuing degradation of the organic deposits. Yet the developer-funded sites show-cased at the Manchester conference revealed equally complex sites with houses over a wide swaithe of northern England and the north-western Irish Sea basin. These sites are demonstrating how widespread and sophisticated Mesolithic culture was in this area, and the intense recording methods needed to recover their detail, allowing this unfashionable region of Britain’s Mesolithic world to emerge from the shadow of Star Carr.

1) Milner N, Taylor B, Conneller C & Schadla-Hall, 2013, Star Carr. Life in Britain after the Ice Age (York: Council for British Archaeology).

2) Gaffney V, Fitch S & Smith S, 2009, Europe’s Lost World. The rediscovery of Doggerland. (York: Council for British Archaeology).

3) www.archaeologyuk.org/cba/groups/northwest

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4 thoughts on “Beyond Star Carr: The Mesolithic in Northern England

  1. I am very intetested in archeaology but do not have any qualifications. i would like to be a volunteer on a dig if there is anything in manchester.hope to hear from you if i can be of any help and i am willing to learn. thank you yours sincerely Cheyan

    • Hi Cheyan. There are over 15 archaeology socieites working around Manchester with opportunities to dig (Mellor Archaeological Trust, STAG, SMART). Salford University also run a community project – you can check out our digs on our Facebook page (Centre for Applied Archaeology). Mike

  2. Is there a video or some form of recording from the conference? The information shared sounds really interesting and I’d love to be able to explore it all a bit further. Jamie

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