The last Ice Age finally came to an end around 10,000 BC. As the retreating ice released its grip on the land, people migrated into the area which would eventually become the British Isles. The melting glaciers caused sea levels to rise. First, Ireland was cut-off, and then the land bridge between Britain and mainland Europe was severed. By 6000 BC, Britain was an island.

Illustration of the business end of a Mesolithic arrow, found in a peat bog at Loshult, Sweden, with a microlith tip and barb.

Mesolithic Age (Middle Stone Age: c.10,000 BC–c.4500 BC) people were nomadic hunter-gatherers. The animals which they killed for food also provided them with bone and antlers, from which tools or weapons could be made, and skins, which could be utilised, not only for clothing, but as sacks and water carriers. They would have also employed wood, reeds and grass, clay, flint and stone. Particularly associated with the Mesolithic Age are small flint blades, of various shapes, known as ‘microliths’. There is archaeological evidence to show that these blades were used to provide the tips and barbs of arrows. It is conjectured that, fitted into handles of wood or bone, they formed the cutting parts of various types of tool.

A red deer skull and antlers, worked into, what is believed to be, a head-dress, from Star Carr.
Reconstruction of Howick Mesolithic house.

An important site for evidence of life in ‘Britain’ during the Mesolithic Age is Star Carr, near Scarborough, Yorkshire. This lake-side encampment probably served as a seasonal hunting base, or as a meeting place where hunter-gatherer groups could carry out ceremonial and economic activities. One of the major discoveries at Star Carr is evidence that the site’s occupants were actively managing their environment by deliberately setting fire to the reeds immediately in front of the encampment – either to improve access to the lake, or, possibly, to encourage animals to feed on the fresh reed shoots which sprang up. Radiocarbon analysis of charcoal, from the layers of burning, indicates that the site dates from c.8700 BC, and was utilised for a period of about 350 years. Star Carr has also revealed unexpectedly sophisticated carpentry skills. The remains of a wooden trackway, crossing the boggy area between the occupation area and the lake, have been discovered (probably the earliest example of a purpose built trackway so far recorded in Europe). Studies of the individual timbers forming the trackway, show that many of them were skilfully split, from trunks of either poplar or aspen, to form planks up to three metres long and about three centimetres thick. The creation of these planks must have been achieved using a combination of flint axes and either antler or wooden wedges.

The remains of a Mesolithic house, at Howick, Northumberland, were excavated by archaeologists, from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, during the summers of 2000 and 2002. Rings of postholes, at successively higher levels, provided evidence that the house had been completely rebuilt twice since its original construction. Radiocarbon dating of charred hazelnut shells, found in a sequence of hearths, has shown that the house was first built c.7800 BC, and indicates it was in use for at least 100 years, though whether this was on a permanent or seasonal basis is not clear.

Sir Grahame Clark, who excavated at Star Carr in 1949–51, found twenty-one such ‘head-dresses’. They may have been worn as camouflage when hunting, or, perhaps more likely, for ceremonial purposes. Professor Clark presented the pictured example to the British Museum. It is thought that the two holes in the back of the skull enabled it to be tied to the wearer’s head by a thong.
The reconstruction is based on postholes. The structure’s solidity suggests that the roof was covered with a relatively heavy material, like bark or turf, rather than skins.
Photograph courtesy of Andy Curtis.