How I Spent My COVID Vacation: I Went to Star Carr

How I Spent My COVID Vacation: I ‘Went’ to Star Carr

Rita Granda

On Friday March 13, I started lockdown along with the rest of the world. I was faced with the challenge of finishing my Introductory Spanish course remotely and struggled to get to the end of semester. Once there, I took a breath and tried to figure out what to do with my COVID time. 

I decided to take an online course. Transitioning from face to face lectures to online delivery had not gone smoothly for me or my students, and it looked like the university was planning on moving all courses online for the fall semester. So, I thought I should prepare by experiencing an online course myself, from the student’s point of view. 

The Department of Archaeology at the University of York in England offers an online course called Exploring Stone Age Archaeology: The Mysteries of Star Carr. The 4-week course is offered for free.

I had never heard of this site so I registered at the end of April and was immediately lifted out of the encroaching pandemic darkness. Suddenly, I was part of a scheduled learning environment with over 200 students from around the world! 

The course was divided into four units:

  • the excavations at Star Carr;
  • the use of stone,
  • the use of plants; and
  • the use of animals.

At the end of each unit students were asked a provocative question related to that week’s information. For instance, after learning about the different plant remains on site, we were asked what we thought birch rolls might have been used for. Students posted their opinions and commented on the answers given by others; since students were located anywhere in the world, the sharing of opinions and background information was extremely enriching. Four Teaching Assistants and the lead archaeologist, Nicky Milner, also commented on our posts and answered all of our questions.  

The content was presented in varied formats: on site videos, animated reconstructions, photographs, articles and charts. Every week included specific short readings but we were also given access to all of the articles in the two volumes that have been written on Star Carr by this latest archaeological team. Some sections were enriched with creative projects related to experiential archaeology. One could move quickly through the sections or take time to read everything about one particular aspect, like stone tools. At the end of the course, I sat back and realized the instructors had used a few short teaser videos to trick me into reading two books.

Star Carr shown on hand drawn map of UK

There was so much to learn! To begin, I searched the internet for Star Carr’s location and found that it is near England’s North Sea coast, just south of Scarborough in North Yorkshire (figure 1). I mention the location here because this information was not detailed in the course. Maybe it is assumed everyone knows where the site is located, given the numerous times the site has been in the British news over the past 70 years.

 The first unit gave the history of Star Carr investigations. The wetland site was initially excavated by John Moore in 1947 then by Grahame Clark from 1949-1951. Their trench excavations uncovered a large assemblage of worked flint, bone and antler artifacts, including 21 red deer antler frontlets, in association with a wooden platform at the edge of a lake. The site is considered Mesolithic as it was dated to the Preboreal, at the start of the Holocene. Initially, debate focused on seasonality and site function but subsequent excavations and reinterpretations show that the site is too complex for a single interpretation. Over the past 15 years, large scale open-area excavations have been used at Star Carr instead of trenches. These new excavations greatly expanded the site area and uncovered more wood scatter within the wetlands as well as dryland structures and an explosion of artifacts.

I will try to be brief and only discuss one item per unit, though there was a lot of remarkable information given. In the unit on stone, we learned that a carved shale pendant that was found in 2015 is the oldest Mesolithic art in Britain, dating back 11,000 years.

See footnote below.

 In the unit on plants, in addition to the amazingly preserved wood platforms we learned about submerged wooden artifacts, including an early hunting bow and a digging stick. Finally, in the unit on animals, we learned about intriguing assemblages of antlers and their possible uses. 

Each unit explains the complex science and technology behind recent findings and interpretations. They do not detract from Clark’s earlier findings; they only add to the phenomenal data related to Star Carr. I have omitted a lot but I’ll stop here and encourage you to find out more about the site, maybe take the course!

1. Milner, N.,Conneller,C, and Taylor B. (eds) (2018) Star Carr Volume 1: A Persistent Place in a Changing World. York: White Rose University Press.