Fading Star: understanding accelerated decay of wetland archaeology

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Chemistry


Star Carr, North Yorkshire, is the most renowned Mesolithic site in Europe. It occupies a pre-eminent position in every synthesis of the period and its interpretation has been the subject of countless papers. The classic excavations of the late Sir Grahame Clark between 1949-51 yielded extraordinary discoveries of abundant, well-preserved animal remains and a spectacular range of bone and antler artefacts. These included antler headdresses (interpreted as ritual paraphernalia), and over 97% (193) of the Early Mesolithic harpoon points found in Britain. Small-scale excavations in the 1980s uncovered a timber platform, the earliest evidence of systematic carpentry in Europe. Recent excavations (the Star Carr project) have provided two further important insights: that the original excavations at Star Carr constitute less than 5% of the total site, and therefore there is still much to be discovered about the nature of occupation; and that the organic materials which made the site so famous are now rapidly deteriorating due to severe chemical degradation, possibly due to changes in drainage patterns. Very little bone has been found in the lake edge deposits (in comparison to 1000s of pieces of bone discovered in the 1950s) and the few pieces that have been excavated have been demineralised and reduced to 'mucus' like jelly. The antler is no longer robust and is found flattened and 'leather' like, and the wood has been shown to be severely degraded at the cellular level with little to no cellulose surviving. Overall, 100% of the bone and antler found in wet deposits during the most recent investigations are severely deteriorated. It is now vital that the results from these studies are properly synthesised and tested further in order to determine the rates of degradation and the processes of diagenesis. This project brings together expertise from a range of disciplines to try to solve the reasons behind this rapid degradation. The combination of the right team of experts and a site capable of yielding such fundamental interpretations is rare and the opportunity for such study is both limited and pressing. Urgent action is needed. Not only will the project address this particular site, the results will also have far reaching applications for the management of other wetland sites throughout Europe. The studentship aims to integrate results from the different areas of scientific archaeology already undertaken at the site over the last three years, thereby consolidating the findings and providing an overarching understanding of the reasons for and processes behind the degradation. The study will provide a unique opportunity for the student to be trained in both inorganic and organic geochemistry, and to use these skills to provide vital insight into a serious archaeological question. The archaeological implications of these results on both the unexcavated archaeology at Star Carr and for preservation at other wetland sites, particularly acidic sites, will be fully assessed, in collaboration with English Heritage. These results will finally enable the student and project team to make an informed decision about the rapidity of the degradation of the site and therefore recommended mitigation strategies.


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