"That's what archaeology is all about": Mesolithic shaman's necklace in Yorkshire could be earliest art from period found in Britain

By Ben Miller | 25 February 2016

Carvings on a fragile necklace found near Scarborough are telling archaeologists about the first permanent settlers of Britain after the last Ice Age - and are about to go on display in York

A photo of a mesolithic stone pendant found by archaeologists at Star Carr in Yorkshire
© Harry Robson
A “sensational” tiny 11,000-year-old pendant found at a famed prehistoric site in North Yorkshire is the earliest known Mesolithic art in Britain and could have belonged to a shaman, say archaeologists.

Crafted from a single piece into a three-millimetre thick shale containing outlines of a tree, a map, a leaf or tally marks, the fragile piece of jewellery was found by a research team from the universities of York Manchester and Chester. It is the first pendant of its kind to be discovered in Europe.

A photo of a mesolithic stone pendant found by archaeologists at Star Carr in Yorkshire
The pendant shortly after discovery© Harry Robson
“It is unlike anything we have found in Britain from this period,” says Professor Nicky Milner, a York expert who led the research and describes the rarity as “incredibly exciting”.

“One possibility is that the pendant belonged to a shaman. Headdresses made out of red deer antlers found nearby in earlier excavations are thought to have been worn by shamans.

A photo of a mesolithic stone pendant found by archaeologists at Star Carr in Yorkshire
This image, captured at 40x magnification using secondary electron mode, shows the central groove on the pendant is earlier, with the diagonal grooves engraved later. Each groove was drawn from the central groove running away from it© Courtesy YMT
“We can only guess what the engravings mean but engraved amber pendants found in Denmark have been interpreted as amulets used for spiritual personal protection.

“We can only imagine who owned it, how they wore it and what the engravings actually meant to them.”

A photo of a mesolithic stone pendant found by archaeologists at Star Carr in Yorkshire
Barbed points found at the site© Jonathan Cardy
Star Carr, the site near Scarborough where the pendant was excavated, is renowned as one of the most productive Mesolithic territories in the world, with peat bogs helping to preserve hundreds of artefacts made from red deer skulls and antlers.

The mysterious lines on the surface of the pendant were barely visible before the team used digital microscopy techniques to observe them through high-resolution imagery. They initially thought it was made of natural stone when they found it in edge deposits from the huge lake which once covered much of the surrounding Vale of Pickering.

A photo of a mesolithic stone pendant found by archaeologists at Star Carr in Yorkshire
A red deer stag skull with holes© Jonathan Cardy
“This was a time when the sea level was much lower than today,” says Dr Chantal Conneller, from the University of Manchester.

“Groups roamed across Doggerland - land now under the North Sea - and into Britain. The designs on our pendant are similar to those found in southern Scandinavia and other areas bordering the North Sea, showing a close cultural connection between northern European groups at this time.”

A photo of a mesolithic stone pendant found by archaeologists at Star Carr in Yorkshire
This view of Star Carr shows soil marks from excavations carried out in 2010© Kirsty High
Shale beads, a piece of perforated amber and two animal teeth have previously been recovered from Star Carr. "I love these sorts of finds because they are a real connection to people in the past,” says Dr Barry Taylor, of the University of Chester.

“When we study prehistory we deal with very long periods of time and often focus on very broad issues.

“But this is something that a person wore, that had significance to them and to the people around them. These sorts of artefacts tell us about people. That’s what archaeology is all about.”

Duncan Wilson, the Chief Executive of Historic England, says the group provided “substantial” financial backing to the excavation in light of the at-risk status of Star Carr.

“The results have exceeded our expectations and will help rewrite the story of this long and complex but little-understood early prehistoric period,” he adds. “The discovery of the pendant is a sensational find.”

The pendant will be put on display at the Yorkshire Museum as part of an impressive showcase of finds from the site including flints, a rare barbed point used for hunting or fishing and 11,000-year-old fire lighters which archaeologists say are “amazingly preserved” in birch bark rolls.

The research is part of a five-year project supported by the European Research Council.

Three places to find ancient jewellery in

Middleham Castle, North Yorkshire
An exhibition about notable personalities from the castle's past includes a replica of the beautiful Middleham Jewel, a 15th-century pendant decorated with a large sapphire found near the castle.

Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London
The large typological series of objects, including amulets and jewellery, provides a unique insight into how people have lived and died in the Nile Valley.

Ribchester Roman Museum, Preston
The displays delve into the Prehistoric past, illustrated by wonderful objects such as an amazingly well-preserved Bronze Age sword and Iron Age brooches and carvings.
Latest comment: >Make a comment
I have a very similar amulet that I found a few months ago, just got to get it to the portable antiquities scheme for positive id
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