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A mysterious deposit of red deer bones

In one part of the site there was a very mysterious deposit of red deer bones in the water. Becky Knight explains what she discovered.
One of the strangest accumulations of bones found on the site was discovered in the detrital wood scatter. When we were digging on site in the waterlogged deposits, more and more red deer bones started to emerge and several of these were articulated; in other words they had been deposited still joined together by sinews or possibly even flesh, still attached. As we excavated it became obvious that this assemblage was made up almost entirely of red deer and consisted of four nearly-complete limbs along with the remains of a torso, some crania and a scattering of other elements. It appeared to represent a whole deer and suggested that perhaps this was an animal that had either died here, or that had been ritually deposited.
When the excavation was over I returned to the lab and continued to analyse the bones from across the site in greater detail. It was at this point that I realised that something was very odd about the deer remains in the lake, and this was that it had two left back legs. So clearly it could not be the remains of one animal, but had to be the remains of at least two deer. What was really interesting about this assemblage was that the majority of the bones looked like they had been placed in the correct anatomical position. There are three ways of interpreting this.
The first is that much of the assemblage represents the deposition of a complete red deer carcass, placed into the lake. As it decomposed the body broke apart and the actions of the water moved the missing elements such as the right hindlimb, the ribs and lumbar vertebrae outside the excavated area. Subsequently, further material including a second left hindlimb was deposited in the same area. The second possibility is that separate parts of the bodies of two or more red deer were deposited by people into this part of the lake and represent an attempt to reconstruct a single animal.
The third interpretation is that the assemblage reflects separate acts of deposition where people deposited large parts of different animals in this area, potentially at different times. Sadly, the evidence does not help us solve this mystery, but what we do know is that during the Mesolithic, people did deposit things into watery places such as the edges of lakes, possibly as part of ritual acts. Such practices are known from more recent hunter-gatherers who communicate with animal spirits, and often have particular rules about how to deposit the remains in respectful ways in order to ensure good hunting in the future.

One of our most intriguing discoveries was a collection of red deer bones in part of the detrital wood scatter. Becky Knight our zooarchaeologist explains what she found.

Further resources

If you would like to read more about this strange deposition and other spatial analysis of bone material across the site, please take a look at Chapter 7 in our free, online book.


Do you have any views on why this collection of bones is placed here?

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Exploring Stone Age Archaeology: The Mysteries of Star Carr

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