Wendy Pratt: The Archaeologist Ventriloquist

 A red deer antler frontlet excavated at Star Carr


A few years ago I had the absolute honour of being accepted as a volunteer on an archaeological dig near the Star Carr site near Seamer, North Yorkshire. For those that haven’t heard of it, Star Carr is a Mesolithic site, around five miles south of Scarborough. We are incredibly lucky, where I come from, to have so many archaeological and historical sites of importance, you can’t go ten feet without tripping over a Bronze Age burial or a Roman signal station, but Star Carr is of incredible importance, and it is also very special to me, having grown up near it.

Star Carr is  widely agreed to be the most important Mesolithic site in Great Britain. The site was occupied from around 8770 BC, which makes it about ten thousand years old. One of the reasons the site is so important is because of the preservation of the artefacts.  All that is usually left at Mesolithic sites are stone tools, but the Star Carr site is a peat site, and peat has the ability to preserve wooden artefacts and even flesh. 8770 BC is close to the end of the last ice age, at this point in time most of the glaciers that had scoured and shaped Britain had melted, though sea levels hadn’t risen to where they are today. Star Carr was a settlement on the side of a huge lake. Lake Flixton was formed from by the glacier that carved the valley in which Scarborough now sits. The people that lived on the lake edge and settled at Star Carr were thought to be the Maglemosian people. The Maglemosian people were essentially nomadic, they may have crossed into Britain via the land bridge that linked Britain to Europe, and they were people that inhabited wetlands and woods, fished and hunted with bone, flint and wooden tools and, it appears, were able to domesticate dogs. It seems that The Star Carr site was settled, possibly seasonally, for about five hundred years. A structure similar to a round house was found there, touted as ‘the oldest house in Britain’ it shows the earliest indication of carpentry in Europe.

The dig that I volunteered on was actually not at Star Carr, but on one of the islands of the lake. Flixton island, now a slightly raised patch of scrubby grass land next to a drainage ditch in the bottom corner of a farmer’s field, is important because it was a place where hunting occurred. During the dig horse footprints were discovered. Ten thousand year old horse footprints, which showed where the horses had come down to the water’s edge to drink. And near by, horse burial sites. The horses had been skinned, de-fleshed, and their bones very carefully laid out, arranged in a stack, and buried.  I’d volunteered on the site because I was writing my full sized collection, Museum Pieces, and needed to finish off a series of poems based on Star Carr. The series is central to the collection and makes up the back bone of the book. I was hoping that being so close to the dig would help to frame a life long obsession with the Star Carr site, I was searching for something in the dig, metaphorically as well as physically.

Archaeology lends itself well to poetry. So many poets have written about it, Seamus Heaney in particular; his bog body poems are extraordinary for their humanity:

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,

(Tollund Man, Seamus Heaney)

Heaney’s bog body poems circle around his own experiences of death. Poetry is an excellent tool for digging. That comparison, the recognition of self, of same, of preservation and continuity seems to be incredibly important to poets. It is the nature of poetry to communicate something more than the visible. Poetry, like any written art form, is essentially about passing on information, it is about language.

If we think about the origins of story telling, we can see that we communicate using the language and imagery of stories. At the very start of language there was a need to preserve knowledge, to pass knowledge on. And a story sticks in the head a whole lot better than a fact. There are stories passed on from generation to generation by Australian Aboriginal tribes that tell of sea levels rising, landscape changing. These are verbal histories that are seven thousand years old, telling what happened at the end of the ice age. This is a paraphrased extract of one:

In the beginning, as far back as we remember, our home islands were not islands at all as they are today. They were part of a peninsula that jutted out from the mainland and we roamed freely throughout the land without having to get in a boat like we do today. Then Garnguur, the seagull woman, took her raft and dragged it back and forth across the neck of the peninsula letting the sea pour in and making our homes into islands.

The imagery is important. It is the point on which the facts are hung. The raft is dragged back and forth by the seagull woman. It is an instant image in your head, It is an answered question, it is entertainment, but it is also fact. This is information being passed on.

Poems are really just stories, they are communication condensed. A poem is a series of images, a specific selection of words that is designed to make a connection in both the poet and the reader. Lots of people write poetry just for themselves, with no reader in mind, and it can be a very cathartic art form, it is meditative, it asks that we search through our minds and experiences to find the perfect image for the perfect word. But, like archeology, one of the most beautiful things about poetry is the act of communication, the recognition, the connection that you see in others. It’s a sharing of something more than just facts. It is important to us, as a species,  to connect and it is important to belong.

In Jo Bell’s poem Crates, the word for crate is also, immediately, an image of a crate. As soon as she has spoken the word ‘crate’ the reader’s mind has provided one. And even though the basic crateyness of each reader’s image  will be the same, there will be many differences. They will all be a box, usually with handles. But one will be the type of plastic crate you use for sorting out the garage, another will be a green grocer’s crate, another will be something metal, something industrial, a big pallet box in a factory. We over lay our own experiences onto our interpretation, and although a writer can guide a reader, honing the image until it is placed within a specific context, it will always be twice filtered, once through the poet and then through the reader.

When something is discovered in the archaeological world, something we have no real clue about, we interpret it based on the filter that is our own experience. And anything that we cannot understand we make into a god, or a devil, because that’s how we make the world safe. One of the most famous things about Star Carr is the huge collection of antler frontlets that were found. Altogether there have been twenty one of these strange looking red deer frontlets found.

I used an image of one as the cover for Museum Pieces. I find them both fascinating and frightening. They are made from red deer stag skulls with the antlers still attached. Amazingly they are so complete that we can see how they have been manufactured: two holes are drilled through the skull with a flint tool and the inside of the skull cap is smoothed. The antlers on each frontlet is carefully trimmed.  Most experts  believe that they were created to be headgear. The holes are either eye holes, or openings used as a means of  tying them to the head. They are likely to have been used as a disguise in the hunting of deer, and possibly for ritualistic purposes. We can only speculate as to why they were seemingly abandoned in the lake, along with 200 barbed antler spear tips. The theory is that they were some sort of offering to a god, that these people believed that water was a doorway to the underworld. But they could just have easily been left in the water to soften them so that they could be worked and sold or used. This could be a commercial rather than a religious offering. It depends entirely on speculation and opinion, the skull mask is a crate, but what type of crate it is is based on what you dig out of your own belief system.

The series of poems that were supposed to be about archeology and the discoveries at Star Carr, ended up being about more than that. They ended up being an archeologist’s eye view of what was happening in my life, a peeling away of peat to get to the bones, and a reexamination of death from a different perspective. My first collection, Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare, was written, for the most part, around the time of my daughter’s death. My daughter died during an emergency Caesarian section in 2010. There was an investigation afterwards and her death was, in part, attributed to clinical negligence. It was an incredibly traumatic experience, and it continued to be traumatic for years after. Six years later and I am really only just beginning to find a degree of peace again, after searching for answers continually. My whole life changed when my daughter, an IVF baby, died, and in turn I had to change my whole life to accommodate that. I gave up my job working at the hospital because the post traumatic stress disorder that came with the trauma wouldn’t allow me to do my job anymore. I couldn’t stop my hands shaking when I walked into the building, I couldn’t trust that the doctors were taking everything down that I was reporting to them when I gave results out and I worried myself literally sick about whether information was being passed on, constantly afraid that someone else would go through what we went through. Grief is a strange thing, and grief for the loss of a child is so different from any other, there is so much instinct involved. You never stop trying to look after your children, even when they’re dead.

In Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare I was able to find my voice again after not being able to speak about what had happened. In fact, the title poem was the first poem I wrote after my daughter’s death, it’s very special to me and it took a lot of therapy to bring her out of the dark. I found a way of placing something or someone historical between myself and the awful events of my daughter’s death, and I was able to allow the events to be translated through poetry. It wasn’t a conscious way of working, I didn’t set out for it to be cathartic, and I don’t think it was, really, it was more about processing, organising, finding a place for it. It was sub conscious. Maybe it was a throw back to the original act of communicating, an innate need to pass information on.

A big portion of the poems in the collection are a ventriloquist act. I have the witch, Nan Hardwicke speak about pregnancy and my love of being pregnant. She does this by transforming into a hare. I have the Duchess of Devonshire talking about what it is to have a baby taken away from you when you have no choice in the matter, I  have a Roman sculpture of a child, a child dead in infancy and a Roman mother grieving. There are poems in my own voice too, Nan and the other characters allowed me to come closer to the pain and recognise that I could touch it. I found a way of overlaying myself onto them, I found a connection to them.

It’s no wonder that Star Carr reemerged when I came to write Museum Pieces. I grew up near Star Carr. I went to primary school in Seamer. A friend of mine’s dad had an allotment just a little way away from Star Carr, he used to come into school with, what seemed like, pockets full of Flint arrow heads. It wasn’t unusual to us, and it became a part of my childhood. We did projects about Star Carr, our school emblem had representations of the dig, it was a constant background. And when I grew up, I lived and work around the area. There are villages right around the site of the ancient lake. To get anywhere outside of Scarborough you find yourself driving around its ghost. When the vale rises it is magical, like the lake is a shroud in the dip of the valley.  At night the dead lake is pitch black. My dad told me, when I was a child, that it was an underground lake, he actually meant that the water table was very high, that the lake water was still present, but just under the surface. For years I imagined a giant underground cave with stalactites and a deep, hidden lake. I have been obsessed by the people of the lake, I am still obsessed  with it, I plot its edges and I look for arrow heads in the ground wherever I am.

When I came to write Museum Pieces, I wanted to write about Star Carr. But just like with Nan Hardwicke, I found I was using the lake people to talk about my daughter’s death. I was looking from a slightly different perspective this time around as I was further away from the horrific trauma of immediate loss and instead, I was learning to accept. I was still searching for answers, still organising my thoughts, especially my belief system. I had been brought up as a Methodist, but that was long gone. It didn’t stop me desperately wanting my daughter to have gone on somewhere. I found by the end of the series of poems that I was coming to terms with the idea that I couldn’t ever know, but that her body and everything that made it had gone on somewhere else. I needed to confront death and own the process of death, and what happens afterwards. This  is one of the poems from the series:


No gentle rest for you; grief comes
with the birds to crack your darkness
open and pick the bones clean
with shafts of sun. You are becoming the sky,
you are becoming bird shit and worm food,
spreading out in a finale fit for a comet.
A final honesty; your insides are on your outside,
nothing can be hidden here. You are metered out
to fox and wolf, bear and bird, your bones
carried into the wild that you feared and loved,
high up near the smile of sky; disintegrated,
dissolved into the here, the now, reflected
in the sea, the lake, you are dissipated, eating
yourself as a god. And fringing your edges,
your friends, your family watching the gateway
to the underworld open, each heart
hurting at your death, each mind placing the facts
of your existence in the world around them, higher.

The village that I now live in is at the furthest edge of the lake. You can actually see where the black peat soil meets the brown soil. I once found what I think is a flint there, I should take it to the museum and have it confirmed, but after all these years of searching for the lake people and their flints, I fear the disappointment of being told it’s just a bit of rock. I carry it about with me, sometimes. I suppose it is a talisman, or a reminder of existence. That these people, these people who loved and laughed and lived by the shore of this lake, they are still present ten thousand years later. That although a memory cannot last forever, you simply cannot take away the fact of their existence. In the same way, I realised it was important for me to let go of the worry that people would forget I had a daughter, that because she had had a short life, it was almost, to some people, as if she hadn’t existed.

The archaeology team is quiet active in Scarborough and there are often interactive events with the public, lectures and such like. I  went to a behind the scenes look at the Star Carr artefacts once, during an archaeology festival. I was pregnant at the time, it was my second pregnancy and I wasn’t doing well with it. We ended up losing that baby too, and the next one, at eight weeks. It was the strangest and most wonderful experience to stand in front of a table of spear points and antler head dresses and be able to actually touch them. There was a birch bark roll, which the archaeologist said was a portable camp fire starter, a sort of Mesolithic lighter. The amazing thing was that it smelled of wood and smoke. It was spongey,  soft, it looked so fresh and smelled of these people and their lives and I found it very moving. In fact I was very hormonal and started crying. But I couldn’t explain why I was crying.

It’s the continuity that I find moving. We are knowing these people and knowing ourselves because of it. We don’t know anything about them, not for certain, I don’t know how they spoke to each other, how they communicated at all, we don’t know what they looked like, whether they were like us at all, but suddenly, here is this personal, mundane item that has carried their smell. We imprint my own experiences onto them. I wonder how the lake people dealt with loss. I don’t think grief will have changed that much in ten thousand years.

A lot of poets write about archaeology; it’s alluring, the inventing of lives and voices, the communication with the past is magnetic, magical, but one sided. We only ever speak to ourselves when we place a voice inside a long gone thing, a long gone person, we filter their presence through ourselves. The conversation that I have had with these ten thousand year old deaths, helped me explore the death of my daughter in safety. I read recently that the ground around Star Carr is destabilising, it is drying out and we are in danger of losing any artefacts still buried. All things change, maybe Star Carr has spoken enough, but I do hope there is more to come.

This is the last poem in the series:


And the tools stored neatly:
trowels spooning trowels,
spades, sharp side down,

I will stand and feel
the sun on my face. The wind
will ripple the trees like

it always has. The ground
will remember the lake
and the lives of the lake people

will fold down like pictures
In a pop up book, but will remain.
I will walk away, feel the wheat

beneath my palms, the sun
in the soil. The napped flints
will find their way to velvet

cushions and glass. The horse
bones will be laid out for all
to see. The story will be re-told

in books and lectures, filling
the skulls of students like dense
earth. And the day will end

like it always has. There will be
a memory, a watermark, distant
and diluted, but the sun will still rise.

* Wendy delivered this lecture as part of a series of poetry lectures organised by Anthony Costello for his ‘Kultura at Kava’ poetry events in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. The 21 poetry lectures are due to be published in 2018

Wendy Pratt  lives just outside Filey, North Yorkshire. Her  pamphlet entitled Lapstrake is published by Flarestack Poets. She also has a full collection, Museum Pieces,  and another pamphlet with Prolebooks. Wendy was highly commended in the Forward prize and also won both the Prole laureate and Yorkmix competitions in 2015. Her latest collection, Gifts the Mole Gave Me, was published by Valley Press in October 2017.



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