Archaeologists find Britain's oldest house

10 August 2010 by Tom Marshall

Remains discovered in North Yorkshire are the oldest house ever found in the UK, according to researchers.

Archaeological team working on site

Archaeologists at the Universities of York and Manchester say the 3·5m-diameter circular dwelling dates from 8500BC, if not earlier. It was last used just after the last ice age, when glaciers had retreated from much of Europe but sea levels hadn't yet risen enough to cut Britain off from the continent.

The people who lived here were hunter-gatherers, pioneers who were colonising this landscape not long after the glaciers' retreat had again made it habitable. The archaeologists have found bones from animals including roe and red deer, badgers, elk, boar and the giant wild cattle known as aurochs in the area. The inhabitants didn't cultivate the land, but they do seem to have burned some of it to encourage animals to graze it; they also kept tame dogs.

Artist's impression of mesolithic hunter-gatherers

Artist's impression of mesolithic hunter-gatherers at a temporary camp near Star Carr. From an original drawing by Alan Sorrell.

"This changes our ideas of the lives of the first settlers to move back into Britain after the end of the last ice age", says Dr Chantal Conneller of the University of Manchester, one of the directors of the project. "We used to think they moved around a lot and left little evidence. Now we know they built large structures and were very attached to particular places in the landscape."

She adds that the structure isn't big by modern standards, but that her whole team of 12 people has managed to squeeze into the space available, so it could have sheltered a relatively large group.

The team found the house at Star Carr, near Scarborough, near the traces of an ancient lake - a site they say could be as important for our understanding of the past as Stonehenge.

The house is older than the previous record-holder, at Howick in Northumberland, by at least 500 years, and dates from the early mesolithic period. Archaeologists think people lived there for between 200 and 500 years, and that there may well be other similar structures around the lake's former boundaries.

The lake long since filled with peat and dried up; its soil has now become dry and acidic, partly due to agricultural drainage, and this is endangering the area's archaeological features, which have until recently been preserved in the damp, peaty ground. The lake was first identified in the 1950s; since then, excavations have turned up objects including a boat paddle, arrowheads and masks made from red deer skulls. But the recent dig found few artefacts and those that were there were in poor condition, due to a worsening environment.

Excavations have also revealed a wooden platform or trackway that archaeologists think served to connect the dry land to the lake, letting people move between them without having to cross the boggy terrain in between. It's made from wood that could be as much as 11,000 years old.

Photo of brushwood platform in 1950s

The brushwood platform found by the former lake shore, photographed in the 1950s

The archaeologists found 18 post holes around the edge of the house, which probably held vertical posts supporting its roof. The dwelling also had a soft floor of organic matter like reeds or bark and a central fireplace. All this would have been put together with only flint and horn tools. This kind of structure, or larger versions of it, is common in the late mesolithic, 500-1000 years later, but this is the first known example from the early mesolithic.

"This is a sensational discovery and tells us so much about the people who lived at this time," says Dr Nicky Milner of the University of York, another of the three project directors along with Manchester's Barry Taylor. "From this excavation, we gain a vivid picture of how these people lived. For example, it looks like the house may have been rebuilt at various stages. It is also likely there was more than one house and lots of people lived here."

English Heritage recently signed an agreement with the farmers who own the land at Star Carr to help protect the remains. It is now planning another excavation that will provide more information on whether a larger-scale dig is needed to recover information before it's lost forever.