Archaeologists from the Universities of Chester and Manchester have made discoveries which shed new light on the communities that inhabited Britain after the last Ice Age ended.
Excavations at a site in North Yorkshire by the team uncovered the exceptionally well-preserved remains of a small settlement inhabited by groups of hunter-gatherers around 10,500 years ago. Among the discoveries were the bones of hunted animals, tools and weapons made of bone, antler, and stone, and rare traces of woodworking.
The site near Scarborough originally located on the shore of an island in an ancient lake and dates to the Mesolithic, or ‘Middle Stone Age’ period. Over thousands of years, the lake gradually filled in with thick peat deposits, burying and preserving the site.
“It is so rare to find material this old in such good condition. The Mesolithic in Britain was before the introduction of pottery or metals, so finding organic remains like bone, antler and wood, which are usually not preserved, are incredibly important in helping us to reconstruct peoples’ lives,” said Dr. Nick Overton of The University of Manchester.
Analysis of the finds is allowing the team to learn more and change what was previously thought about these early prehistoric communities. The bones show that people hunted a wide range of animals in various habitats around the lake, including large mammals such as elk and red deer, smaller mammals such as beavers, and water birds. The bodies of hunted animals were butchered and parts of them were intentionally deposited into the wetlands on the island.
The team also discovered that some of the hunting weapons made of animal bone and antler had been decorated and had been taken apart before being deposited on the island’s shore. This, they believe, proves that Mesolithic people had strict rules about how the remains of animals and objects used to kill them were disposed of.
“People often think of prehistoric hunter-gatherers as living on the edge of starvation, moving from place to place in an endless search for food, and that it was only with the introduction of farming that humans lived a more settled and stable lifestyle. But here we have people inhabiting a rich network of sites and habitats, taking the time to decorate objects, and taking care over the ways they disposed of animal remains and important artefacts. These aren’t people that were struggling to survive. They were people confident in their understanding of this landscape, and of the behaviours and habitats of different animal species that lived there,” said Dr Amy Gray Jones of the University of Chester
The team hopes that future study at this and other nearby sites will shed new light on people’s interactions with the environment. Analysis of peat deposits around the site has already revealed that this was a very biodiverse landscape, rich in plant and animal life, and as work continues, the team hopes to find out what effects humans had on this environment.
“We know from research carried out at other sites around the lake, that these human communities were deliberately managing and manipulating wild plant communities,” stated Dr Barry Taylor of the University of Chester. As we do more work on this site, we hope to show in more detail how humans were altering the composition of this environment thousands of years before the introduction of agriculture into Britain.”
The project is co-directed by Dr Barry Taylor and Dr Amy Gray Jones from the University of Chester, and Dr Nick Overton from The University of Manchester. The project was funded by the Royal Archaeological Institute, The Prehistoric Society, and the Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society, and took place with the help of landowner Mr Sidney Craggs, students and graduates from the Universities of Chester and Manchester, and volunteers from the Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society. — University of Chester