The best-known Danish invasion of Britain is that of 870 CE when the Great Heathen Army led by the brothers Ivar the Bonelesss, Ubbe Ragnarsson, and Halfdan Ragnarsson, overran England and installed the Englishman Ecgberht as a puppet king. These Vikings had sailed from Denmark to Britain in their famous longboats. Much earlier—more than 8,000 years earlier—another group left what is now Denmark and walked to what was to become the British Isles. The Maglemosians, as they are called by archaeologists, walked across the land which connected Britain to Europe (called Doggerland) before it became submerged beneath the North Sea.
Archaeologists named these people Maglemosians—we don’t know what they called themselves--after a site in Denmark which is called Magle Mose (the Big Bog). At this time Europe, including what would become Britain, was heavily forested. While the Maglemosians had stone axes which they could use to cut down some of the trees in the woodlands, their basic toolkit was based on microlith technology. Microliths are very small flints which are then mounted in wooden hafts to form composite tools such as saws and knives.
The best-known English Maglemosian site is Star Carr in Yorkshire. This was a lakeside camp on the shore of the ancient Lake Pickering which was occupied primarily in the winter and spring. Archaeological data shows that Star Carr was occupied by 8770 BCE. People continued to use the site until about 8460 BCE, with a possible abandonment from about 8680 to 8580 BCE.
Shown above are some of the Star Carr artifacts.
The Maglemosian people, including those at Star Carr, had a hunting and gathering subsistence pattern. This means that the calories they consumed came from the animals which they hunted and from the wild foods which they gathered. The archaeological data at Star Carr shows that the people ate red deer, roe deer, elk, ox and pig (in order of amount consumed). Also found at the site are the bones of pine marten, hedgehog, hare, badger, fox, and beaver.
As with hunting and gathering people in other parts of the world, the Maglemosian people at Star Carr regularly burned the vegetation around the site. This encouraged the growth of fresh shoots which, in turn, attracted and sustained game animals. In other words, Mesolithic people manipulated their environments to increase their yields.
The faunal remains found at the site include evidence of the domesticated dog. This was a true dog, but was clearly descended from a domesticated wolf.
Britain was sparsely populated at this time: it was probably home to about 10,000 people. It is estimated that the people from Star Carr ranged over 200 square miles of woodlands, hunting and gathering wild plants.
Star Carr was occupied by a small band of about 25 people. One of the interesting features of the site is the platform of logs which they constructed on the edge of the lake. This platform, consisting of split and worked timbers, had been laid down over a distance of about 6 meters (20 feet) in the reed swamp zone of the lake. While the people lived on the dry land upslope of the lake, the platform was laid down to consolidate the boggy water’s edge and to provide access between the dryland areas and the open waters of the lake.
The discovery of a wooden paddle at Star Carr suggests that the Maglemosian people used canoes or some form of watercraft. While the paddle found at the site is actually too small to have been a functional canoe paddle, there was also occupation on some of the islands on the lake which confirms the use of boats.
Also found at Star Carr were tightly bound rolls of birchbark. Archaeologists feel that these could have been used for fuel or a source of resin for mounting microliths. The flint which they used for making tools came from nearby beaches, which, at the time of occupation, would have been about 10 to 20 kilometers (6 to 12 miles) away.
The most famous finds at Star Carr are the 21 headdresses made from red deer skulls with the antlers still attached. Each had two holes made through the back of them. The lines of cut marks on the skulls were made by flint tools and show that the skin was deliberately removed from the skulls. The bones forming the top of the nose were then broken off and the edges of the remaining skull partly trimmed. The antlers were also broken off and the remaining stumps thinned down and trimmed around the base. The two holes in the back of the skull were made by cutting and scraping away bone on both sides.
Shown above is one of the antler headdresses from the British Museum.
According to the British Museum:
These worked antlers are thought to be head-dresses. The holes would have been used to tie them to the head with a leather thong. They may have been worn by hunters as a disguise, but it is more likely that they were part of a costume worn on special occasions, perhaps during religious ceremonies.
Some archaeologists have suggested that these antler headdresses or frontlets closely resemble the deer headdresses worn in English folk customs, notably the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.
The headdresses, as well as other objects made from red deer antler, appear to have been respectfully deposited at the lake edge due to the spiritual significance of red deer to the people who occupied the site. These offerings are closely associated with the platform built at the edge of the lake.
Beads made from shale, animal teeth and amber found at Star Carr suggest that the Maglemosians used personal adornment. In addition, there are needles showing that they made tailored clothing. Bone awls and pins appear to have been common possessions.
In August 2010, the archaeological team working at Star Carr announced that they had discovered the oldest known house in Britain, dated to 10,500 years before the present. The house, a round structure made of wood, was about 3.5 meters (11 feet) wide. The house was constructed with a circle of about 18 timber posts, each of which was about 8 inches in diameter. These posts were placed around a sunken floor area. While archaeologists don’t know what materials were used for the roof and walls, hides and thatch have been suggested as possibilities. The actual shape of the roof is unknown and could have been either conical or flat.
The floor of the Star Carr house was covered with a deep (20 to 30 centimeters or 8 to 12 inches) layering of moss, reeds, and other soft materials. Burned flints found on the floor suggest the presence of a hearth. The house seems to have been used for some 200 to 500 years after its construction. During this time, the house was repaired several times.
The problem with the Star Carr house is that archaeologists have traditionally felt that Mesolithic hunters and gatherers, such as the Maglemosians, did not build any permanent housing. The discovery of this house has changed the way many archaeologists view Mesolithic hunter-gatherer groups. The idea that Britain was inhabited during the Mesolithic by nomadic hunters who followed the animal herds has to be reappraised. The Star Carr house indicates that Maglemosians were far more sedentary than previously thought.
Shown above are the archaeologists working at Star Carr. Since 1989, archaeologists from Cambridge and York universities have been involved in a systematic reinvestigation of the site.
About 6000 BCE, the Maglemosians began moving into Scotland, establishing camps at Morton in Fife and Lussa Bay on Jura.