Moonshine over Star Carr: Post-Processualism, Mesolithic Myths and Archaeological Realities

By Mellars, Paul | Antiquity, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Moonshine over Star Carr: Post-Processualism, Mesolithic Myths and Archaeological Realities


Mellars, Paul, Antiquity


Introduction

The early Mesolithic lake-side site of Star Carr in North Yorkshire, England, has remained a perennial topic of debate and re-interpretation ever since the original, inspired excavations of Grahame Clark in the early 1950s. The repeated re-interpretations of the site have arguably served as a kind of barometer of the successive swings and fashions in archaeological interpretation over the past 50 years, ranging from the strongly ecological and 'functionalist' interpretations of Grahame Clark himself, and the ensuing generation of equally ecologically/ functionally-oriented adherents of the 'new', 'processual' archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s, to the current wave of passionately anti-functionalist, 'post-processualist' approaches which has increasingly gripped the younger generations of prehistorians from the later 1980s onwards. As someone who graduated from Cambridge in 1962 and then occupied an adjacent office to Ian Hodder from 1981 onwards, I have watched these successive swings of theoretical fashions and obsessions--with increasing awe and fascination--over the whole of my professional career. I can even claim to have acted as the research supervisor or PhD examiner for many of the key figures in the ongoing debates (Clive Gamble, Steven Mithen, Tony Sinclair, Paul Pettitt, Mark White, Terry Hopkinson, Chantal Conneller, Nicky Milner, and many others). I have, one might say, seen it all--mostly from a ringside seat!

In the case of Star Carr (and the Mesolithic generally) the shift from processualist to post-processualist perspectives came rather late in the day. The successive re-interpretations of the Star Carr data by Caulfield (1978), Jacobi (1978), Pitts (1979), Andresen et al. (1981), Price (1982) and Legge & Rowley-Conwy (1988) were all essentially ecological and processual in character, and no doubt my own co-authored monograph on the site published in 1998 (Mellars & Dark 1998) could be seen as falling squarely (and unapologetically) into the same mode--with the exception of a suspiciously post-processualist (almost 'phenomenological') lapse on page 228! How far I am now prepared to shift from this position will no doubt become clearer as the present discussion proceeds.

Although the impact of post-processualism came late to the Mesolithic, another generation of (self-styled) 'new Mesolithic' scholars has taken up the post-processualist agenda with nothing short of missionary zeal--well reflected in some of the papers in a number of recent edited volumes (Conneller 2000b; Bevan & Moore 2003; Cobb et al. 2005; Milner & Woodman 2005; Conneller & Warren 2006). All of this is of course entirely predictable and no doubt fundamentally healthy in any developing discipline. My specific concern here is to put the spotlight on one or two of the specifically 'post-processualist' perspectives which have emerged in the particular context of Star Carr itself, and to attempt to make a clear, and as far as possible a detached, assessment of how far these new approaches can fairly claim to have brought significant and sustainable new insights into the social character and cultural meaning of this iconic site.

In the case of Star Carr, the most conspicuous and pervasive new perspective has been to argue for a much greater element of 'ritual' in the character of both the human occupation of the site (or 'place'--to use the new, politically correct language), and the character and mode of deposition of the associated archaeological material--best reflected perhaps in Richard Chatterton's thoughtful paper on 'Star Carr reanalysed' (Chatterton 2003; see also Chatterton 2006). As Chatterton himself points out, the concept of a strong ritual component in the behaviour of the Star Carr groups is by no means a new development, and was strongly emphasised by Grahame Clark himself in his original discussion of the series of 21 red-deer antler 'masks' or 'frontlets' recovered from his excavations. …

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