This is very exciting. It’s not often we get large excavation monographs devoted to single mesolithic sites in the UK (Three Ways Wharf stands out, a site that was published in 2011 and excavated in the 1980s), but recently within the space of a few weeks we got two: Blick Mead in mid March (photo above shows the spring near the site), and Star Carr in mid April. These are undoubtedly the country’s best known mesolithic excavations. The sites are both of great interest in various ways, to archaeologists and a wider public. And the books are absolutely fascinating.
When it comes to publicity, the two sites are at opposite poles. Star Carr keeps itself to itself, or has until now: we have to look to the books for news. Remember Britain’s oldest house? They found it at Star Carr in 2008, and the story went round the world… in 2010. Well it isn’t the oldest house any more. The monographs report another one at Star Carr, and it’s older. And it’s not the only new house.
Blick Mead, by contrast, can’t keep quiet. David Jacques, excavation director at Blick Mead, recently very helpfully came to a meeting of the Stonehenge A303 Scientific Committee, and gave us a presentation with Tony Brown. At one point Jacques explained that sensational stories were the only way to impress the Sun newspaper, and the result was outreach of an exceptional kind, followed by a very large audience. That this reaches a large audience is undeniable, but how helpful is it if the stories cannot be supported by evidence? So here we look to the monograph not for news, but for nerdy data. We want to be able to strip away the silliness and find the archaeology. And, wonderful to see, it’s there.
I have reviewed Star Carr in the new British Archaeology, and extracted some of the headline new stuff for a News spread (and put it on the front cover, it’s that important). Someone else will be reviewing Blick Mead in a future edition. I don’t want to repeat anything here. (In passing, I must mention extremely useful surveys of UK and continental European early mesolithic sites in the first Star Carr volume; there is far more in these two monographs than I could mention in a short review.) Instead I’m going to try something that the simultaneous publication of these books encourages us to do: to compare Star Carr with Blick Mead.
What can we learn by applying what we can see at Star Carr to Blick Mead? Star Carr has exceptional preservation, and has been dug on a large scale (the main trench dug in 2013–15 was around 1,400 square metres) with a large research budget (thank you European Research Council and Historic England). To date excavation at Blick Mead has been small scale (190 square metres) and not supported by large grants. What was happening at Blick Mead in the mesolithic? A lot has been said in the media about Blick Mead’s importance, and how it might be endangered if proposed roadworks were to go ahead. This exercise will help us gain a little insight into these issues.
The sites are both mesolithic, but they are not contemporary. Archaeologists split the mesolithic into two eras, early (9500–8000BC) and late (8000–4000BC). Star Carr is early mesolithic – in fact very early, people are there from 11,300 years ago, very close to the end of the ice age. They hang around doing various things, on and off – there are several significant breaks in activity – for 800 years.
Blick Mead is late mesolithic. Radiocarbon dates from the site (tabulated in full in the book) range between around 7800BC and 4150BC, effectively the whole of the late mesolithic’s 4,000 years. We don’t have the detailed evidence of Star Carr to tell whether people are there all the time or on and off, but the latter is more likely. One of the most important conclusions at Star Carr, based on a huge amount of data and thought, is that it had history. It was not one long, eight centuries of hunting, butchery and making microliths. The landscape was changing and people were changing too, no one generation doing exactly the same as another.
At Blick Mead we have only the radiocarbon dates to judge this on (there are no stratigraphic sequences, unlike Star Carr), and 17 dates across four millennia are not very many (there are 223 from Star Carr). The diagram above shows all the published dates, helpfully tabulated in the new book, with their 95% confidence ranges. For what it’s worth, there are significant gaps among these 17 (notably between 7550 and 6700BC and 4700 and 4350BC, with smaller gaps around 6500, 6000 and 5500BC) to make it impossible to say the evidence proves continuous occupation. There are not enough dates to argue the opposite – that people periodically abandoned the place. But we can be sure the landscape and riverside were changing, people were changing, and that it’s more than likely the reasons they were there at all changed. We shouldn’t assume mesolithic people didn’t innovate, didn’t change their ideas about their world or didn’t engage with other communities in ways that might have affected how they lived. Our default hypothesis – learning from Star Carr, as well as a wider understanding of hunter-gatherers in general – should be that the people at Blick Mead, over 4,000 years, had a complex history.
Another point we can take from the Star Carr monographs is it was not the only place where mesolithic people came to the shore of Lake Flixton and did things. Many other sites have been excavated or test-pitted, including some described briefly in the concluding discussions where concentrations of flint artefacts and debris, hearths and possible structures have been found. This gives support to an intuitive feel that at Blick Mead, especially perhaps to the south where the Avon floodplain opens up and you can see ancient riverside terraces, there are likely to be other mesolithic sites. We already know of one, found just downstream in West Amesbury by the Riverside project. The prospect of well-preserved mesolithic sites, potentially with wood as well as bone and antler, stratified within peat and alluvium, is enticing, and merits some serious prospective fieldwork.
When we think of Star Carr, we think of organic stuff: wooden platforms, trees, animal bones, deer antler. But it has flints too, which in the past have been rather outshone by the other finds. Now thanks to meticulous excavation (every find was plotted in 3D, a heavy commitment of labour) and Chantal Conneller’s analysis, Star Carr has important things to say with its flints as well.
Mesolithic sites are identified by their distinctive stone tools and manufacturing debris, usually all that survives. The large, fresh and highly studied flint collection from Star Carr will thus be one of the most important outcomes for understanding other sites.
High-resolution wear studies revealed that only axe blades – chopping wood – and scrapers – mainly working animal hides – had a strong link with particular activities. Microliths had been hafted on projectiles, and used for piercing and cutting plants, hide, meat and bone; burins worked wood, bone or antler, stone, plants and fish; and unretouched blades were multifunctional tools for scraping, cutting, piercing, peeling, boring and butchering a wide variety of materials. It’s particularly striking how heavily unretouched blades were used.
At Star Carr this shows people were busy making and processing many different things; it was not a special-use place. At other sites, where microscopic use wear may not be preserved, particular tasks such as butchery or hunting cannot now be inferred from artefact typology. If we get lots of burins, we can’t safely say, at this site people were doing a lot of antler processing (as many of us, not least me, used to say of Star Carr). Microliths seem to have been used as much in knives as to arm projectiles.
Water (and more flint)
Now both Star Carr and Blick Mead are waterside sites. The former is (or was) on the edge of a lake, and the latter near a stream or spring, so we might expect that different things were going on at the two sites in the mesolithic. Water preserves things. At Star Carr the large area excavated covers both wetland and dryland – areas where wood is preserved, and areas where it is not. The degree of waterlogging does not, however, affect the preservation of flint. So we can compare the flint artefacts in wet ground and dry ground, and this is helpful when we think about Blick Mead.
We see a dramatic difference between the two areas at Star Carr (see map above). On dry land there was a lot of flint: knapping debris, cores, tools and burnt stone. Often meticulous excavation and refitting of pieces were able to discern activity areas, places where there might have been hearths (quite a few), where butchery happened, where axe blades were resharpened and so on.
In the water there was a succession of wooden platforms, apparently helping people cross a lake-edge swamp from dry land to open water, and also occasionally to sit on and work or perhaps to contemplate. Here the flints the archaeologists found were quite different. There were far fewer – all the large concentrations were on dry land. And what was there was also different. Instead of lots of waste, the pieces were mostly tools. And there was hardly any burnt flint at all.
The trenches at Blick Mead are small, and the excavation conditions challenging. As Nicky Milner (project leader at Star Carr) has said to me, what the Blick Mead team have been able to achieve on so low a budget is really impressive. Ideally, and necessarily if large areas are opened up in future, all material would be plotted in three dimensions. This would be difficult to do, and very time consuming.
For now, what we can see from the book is that there is a layer of mud (“a viscous dark brown silty clay”), just 20cm thick, containing all the mesolithic finds – bones and flints. It occurs in each of the trenches described, buried and protected beneath later deposits. 4,000 years of activity are compressed (or mixed, we can’t yet tell) into a layer less than a foot deep.
There is no wood. But there is an awful lot of flint. Barry Bishop, describing the flintwork, is right to be impressed with the quantities.
He lists the amounts. In the three main trenches, 41 square metres of excavated ground (the book is an interim report, they are still digging), they found an astonishing 74kg of burnt flint. In the mesolithic layer in Trench 19, the most productive, there was 51kg of burnt flint, or 5,457 pieces, as well as 17,488 pieces of struck flint. The layer in that trench was 11 square metres.
We can compare this with Star Carr. One of the densest areas of flint there is on dry land, in an area they call the “western structure scatter”. Conneller says that at its most concentrated it contained 432 pieces/square metre. It covers about 20 square metres, and overall (5,058 struck pieces, 1,760 burnt) there is a density of around 250 struck pieces/square metre and 90 burnt/square metre.
That compares with 1,600 struck pieces/square metre and 500 burnt/square metre in Trench 19 at Blick Mead. Many early mesolithic sites (older than Blick Mead) have been excavated around Newbury on the river Kennet. Here one particular site, at Greenham Dairy Farm, has been singled out for the high density of flint artefacts: 2,495 were found in 7 square metres. But this is still, at around 350 pieces/square metre, much less than Blick Mead.
It’s worth repeating this. Compare a typical trench cut into a mesolithic layer at Blick Mead (Trench 19) with one of the densest concentrations of flint at Star Carr:
Pieces of struck flint/square metre
Star Carr 250 (74%)
Blick Mead 1,600 (76%)
Pieces of burnt flint/square metre
Star Carr 90 (26%)
Blick Mead 500 (24%)
The proportions of burnt and struck flint at the two sites are similar. But the amount at Blick Mead is on another scale: overall, six times as much per square metre. This is comparing it with one of the densest scatters at Star Carr. Across that site as a whole there is a much lower occurrence of flint. And in the wet part, by comparison, there is almost none.
On this evidence, at least, we’d say that the Blick Mead accumulation probably occurred on dry land. But that alone couldn’t account for the great density of material. One possible explanation lies in time: there were 4,000 years for the flints to build up at Blick Mead, and only eight centuries at Star Carr. Another might be that some or all of the flints at Blick Mead are there not because people were there using and making tools, and burning fires, but because at some time – maybe more than once – a great mass of debris was picked up from somewhere else and dumped there. There is a possible analogy for this at Star Carr. The reports suggest that the area that Grahame Clark famously excavated in the 1940s, where there is what we can now see to be an extraordinarily dense collection of material that is matched nowhere else on the site, was a place where people deliberately put mounds of antler, bone, stone tools and so on – in British Archaeology, I call this the mother of all structured deposits.
Much has been made in the media of Blick Mead’s waterlogged status. The spring has preserved all this material, it is said, including a lot of animal bone. As recently as yesterday this point was emphasised, believe it or not, in a Westminster Hall debate about the proposed A303 tunnel.
“The principal concern there is about the water table,” said Alex Burghart MP, talking about threats to Blick Mead. “The deoxygenated environment is extremely helpful in preserving organic matter from a long time ago.” Look what happened at Star Carr, he adds:
“An extraordinarily important mesolithic site in North Yorkshire called Star Carr was damaged when drainage ditches – which, I believe, had been approved by heritage organisations – were cut through. That has caused irreparable damage to a truly remarkable site. For the record, the academic paper charting what happened at Star Carr can be found in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, November 2017, “Lessons from Star Carr on the vulnerability of organic archaeological remains to environmental change”. Within a short period from the changes being made to the Star Carr environment, irreparable and irreversible damage was done to its archaeology.”
Then later, Jesse Norman MP (parliamentary under-secretary of state for transport), says, “The Star Carr site is in many ways not a relevant comparison, although it may serve as a warning, precisely because it was the victim of ill-thought-through land drains and acidification of the site, which I am afraid reduce its value as a comparator.”
If only all MPs were so well informed about archaeology!
But was Blick Mead actually under water at the time the flints and bones were put there? And has it been so ever since? Or was it a dry land site, as seems to be suggested by the artefacts? On current evidence, I don’t think we can say. The monograph does not ask the question. Everything described in the book could have been there if the site had been on dry land, in particular circumstances – the best would be a fine, dry, chalky silt, as occurred at the palaeolithic site of Boxgrove in West Sussex, where small intricate bones were perfectly preserved. Perhaps the viscous dark brown silty clay was once such a deposit.
The bone preservation at Blick Mead is not as good as Boxgrove’s. In fact it’s not particularly good at all, as the book makes clear: “The preservation of the bones was very poor, most fragments being very small and highly eroded; this is typical for chalk environments with water percolating through them” (page 128). There is none of the wood or well-preserved (once) heaps of carved antler for which Star Carr is so famous. Insect, pollen and plant remains, for example, are described from Blick Mead, but they are either from layers that are not mesolithic, or the remains have not yet been demonstrated to be mesolithic from contexts which are said to have had water flowing through them.
We might hypothesise, then, that originally Blick Mead was not a wet site. At some time the water table rose, or the local spring regime changed, so that it became partly submerged and water ran through it. Bone damage might have been exacerbated by polluted runoff from the surface of the A303, which is very close to the site just to the north: bone erosion could be active now. (If that is an issue, the proposed roadworks would actually improve the situation, as any new road would have hydrocarbon filters that are not there now.) More research is needed into this, and doubtless will occur, as well as that already being done by Highways England. For now we really don’t know how and why the material at Blick Mead got there.
What the book makes clear is that this is a very unusual mesolithic site, for the sheer quantities of flints and bone. To answer the sort of questions I’ve discussed here, it needs, and deserves, to be excavated on a large scale, with substantial funding. The team have shown, in highly challenging conditions, how intriguing the site is. Now we want to know what was happening there.
What was Blick Mead?
Milner, N., Conneller, C. and Taylor, B., 2018. Star Carr Volume 1: A Persistent Place in a Changing World. York: White Rose University Press. 407 pages
Milner, N., Conneller, C. and Taylor, B., 2018. Star Carr Volume 2: Studies in Technology, Subsistence and Environment. York: White Rose University Press. 600 pages
Both of the above books can be downloaded for free, a university initiative that cannot be praised too much.
And Star Carr features in the new British Archaeology, available online today, as well as in two previous features: “Fading star” by Nicky Milner (Sep/Oct 2007/96) and “Little house by the shore” by Barry Taylor, Chantal Conneller and Nicky Milner (Nov/Dec 2010/115).
Jacques, D., Phillips, T. and Lyons, T., 2018. Blick Mead: Exploring the ‘First Place’ in the Stonehenge Landscape. Oxford: Peter Lang.
The book can be bought in various forms online, all costing a reasonable (for an academic monograph) £35. 258 pages
I took the Blick Mead photos above on an invited visit in 2014. They have already been published in British Archaeology May/Jun 2015/142: my review feature is worth a read, putting the site into local context.
THREE WAYS WHARF
Lewis, J. and Rackham, J., 2011. Three Ways Wharf, Uxbridge: A Late Glacial & Early Holocene Hunter-Gatherer Site in the Colne Valley. London: MOLA.
See the MOLA website (£25).