Archaeologists from North Yorkshire are racing against the clock to save Britain’s oldest settlement, a mysterious Stone Age site called Star Carr. Emily Flanagan meets some of those tasked with protecting its treasures

JUST under the surface of a flat, unremarkable looking field in North Yorkshire lies some archaeological remains that are so significant they are known to archaeology students around the world.

However, the thousands of people passing the Star Carr site on the A64 every day are mostly oblivious to its existence.

It is Britain’s oldest inhabited settlement, pre-dating Stonehenge. When it was built 11,000 years ago, Britain was still connected to the Continent, the Ice Age had just passed and the first hunter-gatherers were beginning to populate the country.

Star Carr is at Seamer, in the Vale of Pickering, on the shores of a glacial lake that once stretched as far as the Hambleton Hills.

Despite having existed before neolithic times, archaeologists discovered the artefacts perfectly preserved in the peaty soil; delicate rolls of birch bark (which may have been used as fishing floats or even for storing homemade, tree sap glue), tools, a boat oar and hoards of ceremonial headdresses.

The past 11,000 years of human activity caused little damage or decay to the items of everyday life that were used and discarded at Star Carr. However, climate changes in the past few years have begun to damage the artefacts at an alarmingly fast rate.

The sinking water table means the peat the site is embedded in is shrinking and the artefacts are becoming exposed to oxygen and bacteria.

Such is the concern that the European Research Council has awarded £1.23m to archaeologists at the universities of York, Manchester, Cambridge and University College London to finish the work before the mesolithic site is lost forever.

Two of the archaeologists involved in this race against time are Ben Elliott and Patrick Hadley, from York University.

Mr Elliott said: “The artefacts at the site are decaying really, really rapidly.”

We are in a cellar-like room full of artefacts in the history department’s grand Kings Manor buildings. Mr Elliott fetches one of the site’s earliest finds – a perfectly preserved, white deer antler – and then a recently extracted deer antler, which in contrast is blackened and shrunken.

He said: “The grant is to excavate the entire site. It is important to early history generally that this is done.”

He has been working on the site for the past five years as part of his PhD studies.

Mr Hadley is using Star Carr to help the public understand more about the mesolithic period. It isn’t an easy task given that the only exhibits on display to the public from the era fit into a case little more than 2ft square in the British Museum.

He said: “In the neolithic period, you had a lot of long barrows and henges, which is something you can go and visit and you can put up museum display boards next to.

“But, if you just have a flat field like we have with this mesolithic site, it is difficult for people to engage with.”

Star Carr has also thrown up a number of finds that have mystified many archaeologists, such as objects that may have been thrown into the lake as offerings. The most remarkable and baffling discoveries are 21 antler headdresses, known as antler frontlets.

They consist of the top of a red deer skull, through which two holes were drilled, and the antlers, which were modified by being cut back and lightened.

Various theories for the headdresses have been mooted over the years – that they were worn in ceremonies or rituals; they were camouflage for hunting; or that Star Carr was some kind of pre-historic production centre for antler headdresses.

The number of objects made from antler, when the rest of Europe was using animal bone, also points to deer being highly important to the inhabitants.

Mr Elliott said: “It is really rare you get finds like that. They have been quite modified in quite a skilled way.

“There’s 21 of them in all sorts of shapes and kinds. There is no way of knowing for sure what they were used for.”

The site was uncovered in the 1940s by Scarborough archaeologist John Moore, who found artefacts sticking out from the bank of a nearby canal while on a walk.

An independent charity, The Vale of Pickering Research Trust, has co-ordinated all the digs since then.

One of the greatest gifts from the site has been to shatter the myth that Britain’s earliest settlers were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Evidence shows they went to great effort to build permanent tent-sized structures, with turf walls supported by timber posts, and a platform at the edge of the lake where they could fish.

There were 197 barbed antler spearheads found at the site, which adds to the theory that its inhabitants set up some kind of production centre there.

Mr Elliott said: “There is no reason not to suppose they were as brilliant with their technical skills in making intricate objects from antler and bone as we are in negotiating the Tube today.

“They could potentially have been as capable of everything we are capable of now.”

Mr Hadley said the signs of recognisable domestic life taking place 11,000 years ago should help everyone relate to our Stone Age ancestors.

He said: “The mesolithic era is thousands of years ago, and yet we can see from this site that these people had a home life and a social life.

“They are people who had kids and fought with their loved ones and had dreams and things they wanted.

“All these things were going on and they have left just enough behind that we can understand this.”