Star Carr

Mesolithic (c. 8500 cal BC): Star Carr, near Scarborough
star carr location

Excavated by Graham Clark between 1949-51, Star Carr is arguably one of the finest Mesolithic sites in northern Europe. Situated on the shore of the former (palaeo) Lake Flixton in an area to the south-west of Scarborough known as the Carrs below the southern fringe of the North York Moors, the landscape is flat with a gentle slope to the north, fertile and damp, today farmland crossed by numerous drains, ditches and streams. Here in the early Mesolithic c. 8500 cal BC when an earlier tundra-like landscape was slowly giving way after the last Ice Age to birch and hazel woodland, a camp-site was established by a small band of hunter-gatherers. Finds included a brushwood platform of interlocking twigs and branches leading down to the former water’s edge, typical flint ‘microliths’ (minute tools characteristic of the period), barbed antler spearheads, a fragment of a wooden paddle, rolls of birch bark for use either as kindling or a source of resin for gluing microliths to wooden shafts in the manufacture of arrows, and a host of organic evidence (seeds, pollen, insect and mollusc remains, etc.) relating to the environment around the lake shore. But by far the most fascinating and celebrated find was a series of headpieces made from the frontlets (front antlers) of a red deer sewn into leather which has been interpreted as some form of ceremonial headdress, worn by a hunter or hunter-shaman during some form of (pre-) hunting ritual – in other words, it provides evidence for symbolism and ritual in Mesolithic life above the level of purely practical ‘everyday’ tools. All of these finds provide us with a fascinating glimpse into life and beliefs in the early Mesolithic.

Work at this key site continues as the Vale of Pickering Research Project which has since uncovered evidence for many more sites of Mesolithic activity around the shores of the former lake.

Tranchet Axes from the Carrs

Among the huge haul of several thousand Mesolithic artefacts and pieces of waste recovered by the late Stuart Feather from the Carrs west of Scarborough is the fine set of 13 flint axes described and illustrated below. According to Tim Schadla-Hall of University College, London, who has been closely involved with the archaeology of The Carrs for a good many years and more recently as one of the key figures in the Vale of Pickering Project, this collection alone exceeds all the flint axes previously recovered from the area since collecting prehistoric artefacts off the Carrs began and trebles the known collection.

They are composed of several different colours of flint ranging from a matt light buff grey mottled opaque flint typical of the Yorkshire Wolds to a rich shiny golden brown semi-translucent flint. They vary in length from 83mm to 151mm and in width from 35m to 57mm and comprise at least 8 axes of tranchet type characteristic of the Mesolithic, where the cutting edge is created using transverse blows to detach flakes across the long axis of the axe in marked contrast to the later Neolithic technique of pressure flaking to create a cutting edge.

Obverse and reverse views of Axe 3 showing the more prominent tranchet flake scars

The word tranchet is French for a paring knife, but in prehistoric archaeology it is used for tools whose cutting edge has been formed by the intersection of two (or more) flake scars. This may have been made on a flake by primary dressing before detaching it from the core, as in the grand tranchet axes or the petit tranchet (or transverse) arrowheads, or on a core tool by knocking off a flake transversely from one corner of the extremity. ‘Tranchet axes’ usually refers to these core tools, which vary considerably in shape and size and include adze- and pick-like forms as well as axes. One particular form, comparatively long and narrow, with unfinished butt and roughly rhomboidal cross-section, is known as the ‘Thames pick’, many hundreds having been dredged from the bed of the Thames, though they also occur on the ground surface, mainly in SE England.

star carr axes 1-3

star carr axes 4-6

star carr axes 7-9

star carr axes 10-12

star carr axe 13

When these axes became blunted through use they were sharpened simply by knocking off another transverse flake, and these sharpening flakes are as diagnostic as the axes themselves. Tranchet axes are a particular feature of the early Mesolithic in Denmark. The distribution of tranchet axes is primarily in the south and east of England. They are common in the Weald, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, the Thames basin, etc., becoming less plentiful in Norfolk, Lincolnshire and northwards into East Yorkshire. At Star Carr, out of a total of 1,215 finished tools only seven tranchet axes were originally found which with these finds now rises to twenty. These implements, together with the detailed environmental and artefactual evidence currently being unearthed by the Vale of Pickering Project in the Carrs, only serve to underline the importance of the post-glacial Lake Flixton area in the early Mesolithic and add considerably to the evidence.