IN THE summer of 1975, my wife and I were on holiday in Spain, but this was no ordinary package deal in Benidorm or Torremolinas. As part of a student exchange arrangement, at Scarborough we had taken in a Catalan teenager from Barcelona for a few weeks and afterwards our son, of the same age, had gone to stay with his parents who were then at their house in Bagur, a small village near the Costa Brava.
Later still, we travelled to Bagur to collect our son before bringing him back home to Scarborough.
One evening our hostess said that we should visit her uncle who lived nearby within walking distance. I should have been alerted before we reached the house because I noticed that the road where he lived was already known by his surname. Usually you have to be dead or famously very dead to have a street named after you.
We were introduced to a short, neat, slim, elderly gentleman with silvery hair and I was immediately reminded of a mature Fred Astaire. But here was no tap-dancing Hollywood film star. In perfect English he asked what part of England we came from and before I could explain where Scarborough was his face had already lit up into a smile of recognition. “Yes”, he said, “Scarborough, the one near Star Carr.”
To cut short the suspense, I have to tell you that my imagined Fred Astaire was in fact Dr Luis Pericot y Garcia (1899-1978), retired professor of pre-history at the university of Barcelona. However, even then, in 1975, you did not have to be a distinguished archaeologist and leading authority on Spanish pre-historic art and crafts to know all about a place called Star Carr. Then as now, every undergraduate archaeologist worth his or her trowel, from San Francisco to Moscow and from Cape Town to Stockholm, has to read about and study Star Carr; it’s in all the basic textbooks on the Stone Age and today, more than 60 years after the first discoveries there, it is still regarded as the most fruitful Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) site ever unearthed.
So here was a foreigner, living a thousand miles from Scarborough who had never been there, telling me about a world-famous location seven miles from my own doorstep.
So where is Star Carr and what has been found there that was and still is so uniquely astonishing?
In 1947 JW Moore, a local amateur archaeologist, had found a flint blade sticking out of the side of a field ditch at Flixton Carr. The following year, he discovered more evidence of very early human occupation further to the west towards the A64 causeway on the south side of the canalized river Hertford at Star Carr. By this time his findings had attracted the attention of then one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Mesolithic period, Dr Grahame Clark of Peterhouse College, Cambridge.
After the Old Stone Age or Palaeolithic and before the New Stone Age or Neolithic, when our ancestors became settled farmers, during the Mesolithic, between 12 and 4 thousand years ago, they were migrant hunter-gatherers.
Accordingly, during the next three summers of 1949, 1950 and 1951, Clark came up to Star Carr with a team of undergraduates and research students from the Cambridge Department of Archaeology and Anthropology. As a result, what they excavated, preserved and interpreted became one of the most amazing stories of archaeological revelation. Grahame Clark died as recently as 1995, but long before then he was renowned as the Disney professor of archaeology at Cambridge after whom that university’s famous archaeology department’s laboratory is named. From 1973 until 1980 he was Master of Peterhouse College. And though Clark subsequently wrote many books and excavated many other sites his world-wide reputation derived largely from his work at Star Carr.
What Grahame Clark had found at Star Carr was a temporary lakeside camp occupied during winter months by a small band of hunters, gatherers and fishermen.
Thanks to pollen analysis and the latest work on radio-active carbon 14 dating, he was able to judge that they had been there about 10,000 years ago, and the beginning of the Mesolithic. At that time, as the last of the ice sheets retreated northwards and melted, they had left behind great expanses of freshwater. What had once been the prehistoric lake of Pickering stretching originally from Cayton and Muston in the east to Helmsley in the west had become a patchwork of smaller lakes surrounded by marshland and rushes. On the edge of what had once been Flixton lake and wonderfully well preserved in waterlogged peat was abundant evidence of what had been happening there 10,000 years earlier.
In climatic conditions that were similar to those of northern Canada or Russia today, these people had fished with harpoons carved from red deer antler; they had felled and shaped birch trees with flint axes; they had domesticated wild dogs; they had made primitive boats from animal skins and propelled them with wooden paddles; and, most astonishing of all, some of them had worn perforated stag head frontlets with their attached antlers as head-dresses. Whether these head-dresses were worn for camouflage or ceremonial purposes or both is still of debate amongst anthropologists. Nothing to compare with these discoveries at Star Carr had been found elsewhere either before or since.
As a recognised authority on the European Mesolithic age, Clark was able to place his findings at Star Carr into the broader prehistoric narrative. Since 10,000 years ago Britain was still part of the European land mass and the area of what became the North Sea was not yet flooded, he concluded that the campers at Star Carr belonged to the same culture known as the Maglemosian (Great Bog) found in Denmark. The ancestors of the Star Carr people had walked across Doggerland that had later become the flat bed of the North Sea.
Since Grahame Clark published his Excavations at Star Carr in 1954 during the last half century many archeologists from all over the world have visited and explored the carrlands at Star and Flixton Carr and the science of excavation archaeology has been transformed. As recently as 2010, the site was again back in front-page news when a team from York and Manchester universities claimed that there they had found evidence of Britain’s earliest man-made house. Clark had unearthed a birch branch and log platform at the edge of the prehistoric lake, but now it seemed that a more permanent domestic circular structure with postholes had once existed there. Also, Clark’s campers were far more numerous as well as settled than he had assumed.
Here was proof that Bill Moore’s chance discovery in 1947 was only the beginning of an unending story.
So, last year, once again, Scarborough was described as “a place near Star Carr,” even though Scarborough still has no museum to exhibit the archaeological treasures found there and not surprisingly, therefore, Scarborians remain unaware of its importance in human history. When Dr Nicky Milner, leader of the most recent excavations, conducted a random public survey in the town, she found that only seven per cent of respondents knew anything about it. If you want to see what has been done and discovered at Star Carr, don’t bother to ask for the evidence at Scarborough’s only museum or even at the British Museum, which has a derisory section on the Mesolithic: take a trip to Copenhagen. The Danes are not only conscious of their Mesolithic heritage but immensely proud of it.