Sunday, 25 March 2018

Star Carr Duck Pendant

My colourised version of the photo of the original reproduced at
the end of this piece. Colours represent a mallard drake.

A paper was published in the online journal Internet Archaeology* in 2016 detailing a find from the previous year at Star Carr in North Yorkshire. They recovered a remarkable 11,000 year old shale pendant just over 3 centimetres (1¼ inches) wide. Many interpretations of the engraving were offered but most were a bit weird. I think the most obvious is that it is a carving of a duck.

More after the break.

Prof Nicky Milner also presented the Star Carr pendant on Digging for Britain on BBC 4, first shown on 24th March 2016. The programme is no longer available but might become available again as the BBC tries to make the TV license worth getting just for the iPlayer.

The engraving looks very like a duck to me. With the hole at the top, the hole is the eye. The bill with vertical hatching is distinguished from the neck with horizontal hatching. The bill is pointing to the right as the head is bent backwards over the body, common in preening ducks. The right-hand ends of the bill and body are distinctly separated. The three diagonal lines represent the wing plumage. I understand from the paper in Internet Archaeology that the line at 60ish° to them was made on recovery from the matrix deposit (posh phrase for "mud we found it in").

The researchers were unable to determine whether the pendant had been worn or not, there was just a little sheen on the top of the hole that could have been from weathering. Likewise it was impossible to determine if the pendant had been coloured with pigments. The powdered white quartz and bright gold iron pyrites (fool's gold) found on the pendant are thought to be artefacts of the long stay in the mineral-rich mud.

Star Carr is only a few miles from the North Yorkshire coast in the present day. At the time the pendant was lost (or deliberately cast away) Yorkshire was still connected to Denmark by a massive land bridge that we now call Doggerland. The ice age was ending but the sea levels had not yet risen high enough to flood that rich land.

Thanks to Francis Lima, image downloaded from Wikipedia
Doggerland would have had many edible and useful plants and animals. There was mixed woodland dominated by oak and pine but with plenty of hazel, dogwood and sloe-like Prunus, all of which have edible seeds or fruit. Fossils of the common reed (Phragmites sp.) were also found. The seeds, shoots and fleshy roots of common reed are edible when cooked and sugary sap can be boiled out of the stems.

The remains of drowned forests at the edge of Doggerland can still be seen at the very lowest tides off the coast of Lincolnshire. They have been eroded in recent years. However, in 1796 botanists could determine several species of trees, including birch, fir and oak. Leaves of holly and a possible willow were found, as well as roots of the common reed.

The presence of Aphodius spp. dung-beetles in deep cores from the sea bed implies the presence of large herbivorous mammals in Doggerland around 11,000 years ago.

Little is known of the use of Doggerland by humans due to it now being under the North Sea and rather difficult to study. Tantalising finds have been recovered from the North Sea over the years, including worked flints and antler.

Though the Star Carr pendant is unique among British finds there are amber beads found in Denmark and Holstein which have a similar style of incised lines. This suggests that the Star Carr pendant was made by a group who were associated with Doggerland and Danish peoples of the time or were themselves nomads who travelled across the whole area. The distance from Scarborough in North Yorkshire to Esbjerg on the east coast of Denmark is only 360 miles, an easy walk in a fortnight for fit folk.

Ian Anderson's folk prog rock interpretation of 
what it was like to live in Doggerland.

Ducks may have been very important to the people who lived by a marshy lake at Star Carr. All sorts of animals have been the subjects of human art from the earliest known cave paintings. The pendant could have been part of shamanic ritual paraphernalia (as suggested by the researchers), a magic amulet for a hunter or swimmer, a totem animal of the individual who carried it, a symbol of the entire community or it could be that they thought ducks were cute and liked having a cartoon of one as jewelry.

Ukrainian duck (drake?) preening,
Cropped and flipped from an image by Jakebless9 on Wikipedia

The original photo as published in Internet Archaeology.*

Milner, N. et al. "A Unique Engraved Shale Pendant from the Site of Star Carr: the oldest Mesolithic art in Britain" Internet Archaeology (2016) 40.

Updated  27/06/19

The excellent Radio 4 programme In Our Time has just covered the subject of Doggerland: