The Star Carr project gets visitors!

On Tuesday 26th of July the Star Carr project at the University of York got a visit from Dr Alice Roberts and a film crew from 360 production for the new series of the BBC’s Digging for Britain.

Alice talked to Nicky Milner (one of the project’s co-directors) and Ben Elliott (a Mesolithic antler-work specialist).

Project assistant, Pat Hadley tells the story of a great day learning about a brilliant site.

Nicky and Alice share a joke

Nicky and Alice share a joke


Star Carr, Britain’s most important Mesolithic site, is currently being investigated by a team from the Universities of York and Manchester. The site was in the news in summer 2010 as the team had discovered Britain’s oldest house. This week, the BBC’s Digging for Britain team came to visit us. They wanted to learn about the site and the story of how artefacts that survived in the ground for nearly 10,000 years seem to have been destroyed by acid soil in the last few decades.

The day began pretty early as Becky Knight and I arrived to check the lab over and get out objects to show the film crew. The crew arrived and went off to do their initial piece to camera (PTC – we were down with all the telly lingo by the end of the day!) in the courtyard of the archaeology department: York’s lovely King’s Manor.

King's Manor, York. Taken from outside the gate

King’s Manor, York: By Green Lane (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons












They were immediately distracted by the bronze statue of a calf in the courtyard!

Alice Roberts and the King's Manor Calf Statue

Alice Roberts and the King’s Manor Calf Statue (via @GemmaHagen360)


















The first piece involving the Star Carr team was a shoot with Ben Elliott describing how his antler working experiments have helped him learn about Mesolithic technology and people’s relationships with red deer.

Ben explains antler working to Alice

Ben, the project’s expert, explains Mesolithic antler working to Alice.















In the picture you can see the tank Ben uses to soak the antler to soften it so it can be worked with flint tools. Alice got pretty addicted to working on one of the barbed points Ben had made: helping to sharpen the point. In the end the sound guy had to stop her as the mics weren’t picking up anything but the scraping noise!

After Ben’s piece we went for lunch and had a great chat about some of the projects Alice has done in the past. We were all jealous of her trips to far flung places and to meet hunter-gatherer groups for the Human Journey series.

After lunch we set up the lab for two interviews with Nicky Milner about the finds from the site itself (in the final piece these will be first in the running order).

The King's Manor Lab dressed for the shoot

The King’s Manor Lab dressed for the shoot

















In the first interview Nicky showed Alice some of the most fantastic finds from Star Carr that are in our collection. As the site was first excavated in 1948 many of the best finds such as the antler-frontlets are now in museums. However we had some more typical artefacts to show such as flint tools, pieces of worked antler and a massive femur (thigh-bone) head from an aurochs (giant wild cattle).

Artefacts from the Mesolithic site of Star Carr

Mesolithic artefacts from Star Carr.
















The jewel-in-the-crown was, however, one of the finds made last summer by our own team. The oldest digging stick in Europe (probably the world). This piece of 10,000 year-old willow (not yet radiocarbon dated) was probably used to dig for tubers and fern roots. It is very similar to examples from various African sites and Alice even showed us photo’s of her working with Hadza women using very similar sticks!

The final piece was about the current state of Star Carr. We have recently begun to understand the reasons that the artefacts at the site aren’t nearly as well preserved as the finds recovered 60 years ago. The acidity of the peat sediments at the site is extremely high. This is destroying the mineral components of the bone and antler and depositing extremely nasty iron sulphate minerals in the soil. Last summer we had to dig wearing surgical gloves and face-masks because of the fumes! The damage from the acidity is made worse by the peat drying out and shrinking.

Nicky explained the situation to Alice and showed her a few of the most distressingly damaged artefacts such as the antler that has been warped and flattened by the compression as the peat dries out. The most dramatic find is a piece of bone that has had all the mineral component and is now reduced to protein – gelatine: A jelly bone!

Damaged antler found at Star Carr 2007

Damaged antler found at Star Carr 2007















"Jelly-bone" found at Star Carr 2007

"Jelly-bone" found at Star Carr 2007

“Jelly-bone” found at Star Carr 2007



The worry over the fate of the site is, however, nearly over. The project has just secured funding from the European Research Council for 5 more years of rescue fieldwork! We look forward to telling you more about Star Carr next year – hopefully with new, exciting finds from the site itself!