Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The oldest house in Britain is brought to light

Archaeologists working at Star Carr near Scarborough in Yorkshire have uncovered the oldest house in Britain to date. The circular structure, 3.5 metres in diameter, dates back to between 9200 and 8500 BC and pre-dates other Stone Age buildings in Britain by up to a thousand years.

Starr Carr is one of Britain's most important prehistoric archaeological sites. In an astonishing season in 1950, archaeologists discovered twenty one head-dresses made of deer skulls and antlers and dating to the Stone Age. It is thought that they were used for hunting-related rituals or ceremonial dances. Precious beads fashioned from deer teeth, shale and amber have also been found on the site and these are often associated with ritual activity in this period.

This season has been equally fruitful. Archaeologists have brought to light the remains of a well-built wooden platform on the edge of a now long-vanished lake. They believe this may have been used as a location from which precious objects were thrown into the water as offerings to their ancestral spirits or deities.

The recent discovery of the remains of the house is challenging views of the level of sophistication achieved at this time in Britain. It was clearly a permanent structure rather than a temporary wigwam-style building and consisted of up to 18 upright posts, each around 20 centimetres in diameter.

Inside there was a living/sleeping area defined by a 20-30 centimetre thick layer of moss, reeds and other soft organic material placed in a shallow 2.5 metre diameter depression. The presence of burnt flints suggests that the building also had a small hearth.

So who was the occupant? Perhaps a hunter - excavations at the site reveal that the inhabitants were hunting and eating animals - including deer, elk, aurochs and smaller animals such as beaver, wild boar, badger, hare and pine marten. The discovery of a wooden paddle suggests that they may also have used boats.

Another suggestion is that it may have been the home of a shaman. Parallels from hunter-gatherer societies in other parts of the world suggest that whilst other members of the tribe would have less permanent structures, the shaman was provided with a more well-built home, presumably in order to safeguard the welfare of the whole community.

Only a small percentage of the site has been excavated to date, and therefore it is hoped that more structures will be unearthed in the future, increasing our knowledge of life in prehistoric Britain.

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