Artifacts at a Stone Age site disintegrate after a change in the site’s ecosystem

Nicky Milner excavating the Star Carr site in North Yorkshire. Source: Courtesy University of York/Guzelian/Lorne Campbell, via Forbes.

Archaeologists at a Stone Age site near North Yorkshire in the United Kingdom might be wishing for a bottle of Harry Potter’s Skele-Gro right about now, some of its artifacts unexpectedly turned to jelly.

Once submerged beneath a bog, the site—Star Carr—remained untouched and isolated from the modern world in a murky peat-filled wetland, according to Forbes. In 2000 the water was sucked out of the bog to prep the land for agriculture. By removing the protective layer of soggy sediment the air began to pocket the landscape. Since sulfur permeated every inch of this soil the addition of oxygen created sulfuric acid which reduced the bone and wood artifacts to spongy flexible substances.

In the bone artifacts the sulfuric acid degraded the calcium and in the wood artifacts it dissolved the sugar structures that strengthen cellulose.

After several experiments, the archaeologists confirmed that fresh bone and wood samples placed in Star Carr peat developed the same jelly-like wobble as the artifacts. When they placed the “jellybones” in drier sediment—replicating the current environment—the artifact substitutes disintegrated.

As Science reported, it may be too late to save any artifacts still in the ground at Star Carr from further damage.


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