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1.2 Can we expect any archaeological residues to survive on stone tools from Mesolithic Star Carr?

Star Carr is one of the most important Mesolithic sites in Europe. Star Carr offers glimpses into a time when people were adapting to environmental change – a transitional period of deglaciation that opened up new landscapes with many lakes and bogs. The site was situated at the edge of a lake, and the peats that formed over the archaeological material are famous for yielding well-preserved organic artefacts, such as iconic red deer antler frontlets, interpreted as headdresses used in shamanistic practice (Little et al. 2016). Personal adornments have also been discovered at the site, such as a finely engraved shale pendant (Milner et al. 2016), as well as beads of shale and amber, adding to the picture of a rich and complex hunter-gatherer culture.

During the first excavations at Star Carr by Sir Grahame Clark from 1949-1951 (Clark 1954), Clark found hafting residues preserved on a microlith and two barbed points, and five thin flat 'resin cakes' were identified by M.H. Hey at the British Museum as oxidised wood pitch or natural resin (Clark 1954, 167, plate XX). The microlith hafting tar and five resin cakes were later analysed by Aveling and Heron (1998). They extracted samples from the artefacts and conducted lipid residue analysis by gas chromatography (GC) and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). The resulting spectra were compared with modern experimentally prepared birch bark extracts, birch bark tar, and bark samples from Mesolithic contexts. Aveling and Heron concluded that all of the tarry substances contain triterpenoids derived from heating birch bark. Thus it can be inferred that at least resinous residues may well be detectable on lithics from Star Carr. Chemically, the terpenoids found in resinous adhesives survive for long periods and in a variety of archaeological contexts (Pollard and Heron 2008, 235).

In recent years, a serious amount of damage to organic artefacts at Star Carr has been documented, owing to lowering of the water-table and a resulting increase in acidity (Boreham et al. 2011a; High 2014; High et al. 2015; Milner et al. 2011). This damage can best be seen in the demineralised bone (described as 'jelly-bone') that was recovered in 2007 and 2008 (Milner et al. 2011), close to Clark's earlier excavations (1954) where bone artefacts were well preserved. Similarly dramatic changes have been observed in the condition of wood and antler artefacts within a 25-year period (between 1985 and 2010). A hydrological assessment by Brown et al. (2011) suggested that hydrological changes at Star Carr were not due to groundwater abstraction or changes in precipitation regime, but rather the network of field drains inserted by the landowners in 2000, which lowered the water-table by >0.5m. This lowering of the water-table shrank the peat deposits to the extent that the once flat field is now visibly inclined.

The agricultural drainage also introduced oxygen to previously anoxic conditions, causing acidification, particularly the oxidation of sulphide to sulphate in most organic horizons (Boreham et al. 2011a; 2011b) and also provided new environments for bacterial action. A recent palynological assessment at Star Carr (Albert et al. 2016) compared the pollen preservation from current cores with equivalent previously analysed cores (Dark 1998), finding lower pollen counts and higher frequencies of deteriorated or eroded grains (60%+). In spite of the deteriorating conditions at the site, antler headdresses, antler barbed points, and bone and wood objects continue to be found, albeit sometimes in a very poor state of preservation. In sum, these changes in soil conditions (Boreham et al. 2011a; High 2014; High et al. 2015; Milner et al. 2011) raised concerns that many residues on lithic artefacts might already have been destroyed.


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