The Early Mesolithic Pendant of Star Carr: relatives across the sea

Star Carr pendant illustration.(by Chloe Watson)
Fig. 2: illustration of the incised shale pendant by Chloe Watson. Taken from Milner, N. et al., 2016, Internet Archaeology Issue 40.8

Starr Carr is the site of a substantial early Mesolithic settlement on the shores of palaeo-lake Flixton in Yorkshire, dating to the 9th millennium BC. It is remarkable in more than one respect. A new investigation of the site by the Vale of Pickering Research Trust, in progress since 2004, revealed that what was once believed to be a seasonal, temporary settlement of nomadic hunter gatherers, was in fact a much more substantial permanent or semi-permanent settlement that was occupied over several centuries, challenging the prevailing view of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer societies as small roaming groups of wanderers. Instead, evidence for the organised building of permanent settlement structures and the site’s scale suggest that this group was substantially larger, and had invested their time and resources to settle in this place over a long period of time (with possible interruptions).

The lake was formed at the end of the last ice age, and remained as a body of water until the end of the Mesolithic. It is situated about seven miles away from today’s North-sea coast, close to what were still the vast, though slowly disappearing expanses of Doggerland, an area of dry land connecting Britain to mainland Europe. The people and culture of the settlement at Starr Carr may therefore be representative of the contemporary people and cultures of Doggerland.

With the rise of sea-levels at the end of the ice-age, Doggerland gradually disappeared beneath the water, and its people would have had to retreat further inland to what became the islands of Britain and the coastal regions of northern and western Europe.

This is perhaps even more striking with regard to the recently discovered incised pendant (Fig.1) found at Starr Carr. The pendant, roughly 3 cm in diameter, with a perforation near the top, is made from shale and incised with a pattern for which the closest parallels can be found on the continent of northern Europe, in the region of what is now Denmark and northern Germany. Here, strikingly similar patterns were incised into amber pendants contemporary with the Starr Carr shale pendant (Fig.2). The Starr Carr pendant is the oldest example of Mesolithic art in Britain, and although there are other pieces of portable art in Britain that are not dissimilar from it in style, none offer parallels as striking as those from the northern continent.

Fig.3: amber pendants from Denmark, with engravings closely resembling those at Star Carr. Photograph by Arnold Mikkelsen, Nationalmuseet

Some of the earliest examples of Mesolithic activity in Britain and Europe indicate a coastal- and island- hopping lifestyle, and an ability to travel by boat. An emphasis on coastal and riverine living is generally considered typical of the Mesolithic, and Doggerland itself was once rich in rivers and delta-systems offering ample resources for humans and wildlife to thrive. Much of the human life in Doggerland is thought to have been focussed along the riverways and coasts. When the remaining areas of Doggerland were hit by a massive tsunami in the 6th millennium BC, thousands of people living there would have been affected, being either killed or forced to flee inland. The catastrophic effects of the tsunami must have been life-changing for the inhabitants of these regions, and would likely have affected their cultural conception of the sea for a long time to come.

The great similarity of the incised pattern of the Starr Carr pendant to amulets and pendants on the northern continent suggests that people who were closely related culturally, and perhaps ethnically, ended up on either side of the divide. It is also possible, although unverifiable at this point, that people maintained links with each other across the North-Sea once Doggerland had been submerged, and that travel between these once connected regions took place. In view of the fact that Mesolithic people were accustomed to travelling by boat and navigating the coasts, it is not far fetched to ask whether they may also have been able to travel across the North-sea. Although there is no conclusive evidence for this to date, the fact that ocean travel took place between islands in the Pacific ocean during the Mesolithic proves that some people were capable of long-distance sea voyages early in prehistory.

The Star Carr incised pattern: not just just for looks

The design incised on the pendant does not appear to have been made primarily with aesthetics in mind. It lacks characteristics that would mark it out as a decorative pattern. Since it was likely worn around the neck, and appears to have been specifically made for this purpose, it is also unlikely to be a case of random scribbles. It is therefore likely that it represents a form of writing, and that the meaning communicated therein was significant to the wearer, and presumably their culture. The pattern is strikingly reminiscent of Ogham, an ancient Gaelic writing form first recorded in the 4th century, but thought to be much older by some scholars. Ogham consists of vertical lines against which groups of up to five shorter lines are set at a 90 degree angle (see Fig.). The pattern on the Starr Carr pendant also consists of long straight lines with groups of shorter lines placed at a right angle, raising the possibility that it represents an early form of writing similar to Ogham. Having been worn around the neck, the pendant may have been used as an amulet, with the marks representing a form of magical spell engraved into the pendant. The close parallels on the northern continent indicates that the meaning of these engravings would have been familiar in both regions. There are further close parallels in south-western European (Fig.4) and North American cave-paintings dating to the Upper-Paleolithic period some fourteen thousand years earlier. This wide spread of the motif hints at the possibility of shared cultural elements that may have existed across Mesolithic Europe and originated in the Palaeolithic.

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