The headdresses of Star Carr

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NORTH YORKSHIRE, England — Researchers have completed the first scientific study on the techniques used to create the oldest shamanic or ritual headdresses discovered in Europe. The red deer skull and antler artefacts were unearthed at Star Carr in North Yorkshire, England, and date to some 11,000 years ago in the Mesolithic era. When the site was discovered in the 1940s it yielded the largest haul of ritual items from the period ever found in Europe, and it is considered the most important area for Mesolithic study on the continent.

Star Carr Headdress [Courtesy Photo]

Star Carr Headdress [Courtesy Photo]

Now, 24 headdresses have been analysed under a five-year project led by the University of York. Twenty-one of them were from the original trove and three were discovered by the team during fresh excavations at Star Carr.

The University of York’s Professor Nicky Milner, co-director of excavations at Star Carr, said, “These headdresses are incredibly rare finds in the archaeological record.”  She added, “This is the only site in Britain where they are found and there are only a few other headdresses known from Germany. This work into how they might have been made has given us an important glimpse into what life was like 11,000 years ago.”

The York team worked in collaboration with the universities of Bradford, Chester and Manchester in the UK, and Groningen and Leiden in the Netherlands.

The researchers discovered that the headdresses feature the upper part of the skull with the antlers attached while the lower jaw has been completed removed, along with the cranial bones.

The antlers of the headdresses were a particular point of interest, as significant portions of them had often been removed. The team suspects that this was primarily done to make the headdresses easier to work. However, the spare pieces of antler were found to have been used to create projectile tips, which were also discovered at the site.

The headdresses are mostly thought to have come from male deer, which were 50% larger than their modern descendants.

From Starr Carr dig [Courtesy Photo]

From Starr Carr dig [Courtesy Photo]

Using a combination of cutting-edge archaeological techniques, including 3D laser scanning, the team found that they were also packed with damp clay and placed in beds of embers for prolonged periods to facilitate bone and skin work.

Dr Andrew Wilson, co-director of Bradford Visualisation in the School of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford, said, “This exciting collaboration enabled the team to use a range of complementary 3D capture methods to document and investigate the modification of the deer crania at a variety of scales, before these waterlogged organic artefacts were subject to conservation treatment.

“This is a great showcase for how 3D documentation and analysis can transform our ability to understand objects of past societies.”

Dr Aimée Little, of the BioArCh research centre in the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, was the lead author on a paper published in online peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE. Dr. Little said: “This research shows how experimental archaeology can give important insights into rare ancient artefacts. Knowing fire was used invokes a real sense of atmosphere surrounding the making of these ritual shamanic headdresses.”

Starr Carr dig [Courtesy Photo]

Starr Carr dig [Courtesy Photo]

However, while the project has undoubtedly provided a tantalising glimpse into the Mesolithic era and enriched our understanding of how these artefacts were created, it has not advanced our understanding of why they were made and how they were used.

Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol, an authority on Paganism in the British Isles, said, “Once more, improving technology tells us invaluable new things about the way in which ancient artefacts were made and used, but not the purpose of their use.”

For now, the headdresses of Star Carr remain shrouded in mystery and we can only hope that further finds at the site will open new windows.