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What is the Mesolithic?

Explanation of what the Mesolithic means, when it is dated to, what the key events are and why we know very little about the period
Before we get onto the excavations at Star Carr I’m going to start off by giving you a bit of a background into the Mesolithic period. What it is and what we know about people who lived at this time. So, the Mesolithic literally means Middle Stone Age and sits between the Palaeolithic - the old Stone Age - and the Neolithic - the New Stone Age. The Palaeolithic and into the Mesolithic is when people lived by hunting, gathering and fishing for their food and so they are sometimes called hunter-gatherers.
At the start of the Mesolithic, around 9300 BC, Britain was joined to Europe by a landbridge and so people would have been able to walk or travel along the coastline, from Star Carr to Denmark or Northern Germany. By about 6200 BC the sea level had gradually risen and Britain became an island, as we know it today. The end of the Mesolithic period happens at around 4000 BC with the arrival of domesticated crops and animals so people at this time are generally termed farmers. They also develop pottery and in the UK they start burying their dead in tombs, such as the Early Neolithic long barrows, generally found in Southern England.
The Mesolithic lasts for over 5000 years and yet we actually know relatively little of what people were doing at this time. The reason for this is because the Mesolithic period has been less explored than other periods. In the past it was felt to be a ‘hiatus’ period when nothing much really happened - stuck between the exciting periods of the Palaeolithic with its amazing cave art in France, and the Neolithic with the introduction of pottery, tombs and farming. In Britain, it was only really when Grahame Clark, an archaeologist at Cambridge University, started studying the stone tools for the period that Mesolithic studies were born.
Grahame Clark was fascinated by the period, and particularly because he was aware of some exciting excavations taking place in the rest of Europe - these tended to be bog sites which had good preservation and which produced organic materials such as bone, antler and wood which do not usually survive. It was Clark’s dream to find a similar site in Britain and he was extremely lucky that an amateur archaeologist from Scarborough happened to find just such a site in the Vale of Pickering. That site later became known as Star Carr. Clark’s excavations at Star Carr became world famous in archaeology because of his incredible discoveries. And Star Carr went on to become arguably the most important Mesolithic site in the world.
Despite this great excavation, and others in Europe, the Mesolithic is still a much understudied period, particularly in Britain. However, for me, the lack of knowledge and understanding about the Mesolithic is what makes it so exciting. There are so many mysteries and questions and so much still waiting to be discovered.

Having listened to this film of Nicky talking about the mysteries of the Mesolithic, what is it that draws you to the study of the period?

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Exploring Stone Age Archaeology: The Mysteries of Star Carr

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