Mesolithic site found in the Vale of Pickering

In total, the trench yielded over 1,000 stone tools and more than 200 animal bone.

Excavations near Scarborough in North Yorkshire have revealed a large, well-preserved assemblage of Mesolithic animal bones, stone tools, and other worked artefacts, deposited in what would have been a lake at the time, but is now farmland. Found just a few miles from Star Carr, this site has the potential to add greatly to our understanding of how the Mesolithic people of Britain moved about and utilised the landscape.

PHOTO: Nick Overton

Archaeologists Nick Overton, from the University of Manchester, and Amy Gray Jones and Barry Taylor, from the University of Chester, first started working at the site back in 2018, together with a host of students, volunteers, and members of the Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society, with funding support from the Prehistoric Society and Royal Archaeological Institute. They had been drawn there after surveying in the 1990s had uncovered a small number of Mesolithic artefacts. While initial test-pits only yielded a few finds, when the team returned in 2019 they found the edge of what seemed to be a much more significant deposit. COVID-19 intervened in plans to return the following year, however, and it wasn’t until this past summer that they were finally able to carry out a full excavation of the site, opening up a trench measuring 10m by 10m and 1.4m at its deepest point, running into the margins of the former lake.

What they found exceeded anyone’s expectations. In total, the trench yielded over 1,000 stone tools (including flakes, blades, microliths, scrapers, and one axe) and more than 200 animal bones (including from red deer, roe deer, elk, aurochs, wild boar, beaver, and birds). Intriguingly, only some parts of animals were found, suggesting Mesolithic people were choosing to deposit certain elements of the body and not others, perhaps bringing these portions of the animal to the island specifically. The excavation also recovered woodworking debris and a small number of bone and antler artefacts, including 13 barbed antler points (pictured above).

All the items were deposited near what would have been the shoreline of a small island, measuring c.260m in diameter, during the Mesolithic period. The team believe that the bulk of the assemblage has now been excavated, with few finds made on the edges of their trench. This suggests that these artefacts occupy a very narrow area of the shoreline, and could indicate that they were not carelessly discarded rubbish, but were instead deliberate deposits in this specific location. While test-pitting in different parts of the shoreline has revealed no other significant deposits to the south and west of the island, the team cannot rule out further finds elsewhere on the island. They hope that, if permission can be obtained from the landowners, the rest of the shoreline can be sampled.

Post-excavation analysis of the finds is now under way. While morphologically the artefacts are early Mesolithic in origin, probably dating to around 8,500 BC, radiocarbon dating will hopefully be able to pinpoint a more precise date. Stratigraphic and 3D visualisation of the excavation should also help to unpick depositional practices, while analysis of the stone and bone tools, as well as the worked wood, will provide information about how they were made and used, as well as why they were deposited. For example, it already appears that the barbed antler points were intentionally removed from their hafts – could this have been part of a symbolic ‘decommissioning’ of the object before being deposited? Watch this space for further updates as the story unfolds.