Stonehenge is one of Europe’s best-known prehistoric monuments. Its distinctive silhouette is immediately recognisable to people both within these shores and further afield, and every year over 1.5 million visitors flock to see the celebrated stones, some travelling considerable distances to do so. It has long been suspected that Stonehenge’s fame also extended far beyond the Salisbury Plain area when the monument was relatively new – some of the Neolithic pottery recovered from the site is of a type that was probably originally developed in Orkney – but now new research has revealed quite how wide-ranging its prehistoric renown may have been.
Drawing on dietary evidence from a settlement two miles from Stonehenge, the findings form part of a new exhibition at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. Feast! Food at Stonehenge is the fourth exhibition to appear in the building’s purpose-built display area, and the first of these to feature new analysis undertaken since the centre opened in 2013 (see CA 288). The story of these discoveries begins a decade earlier, however, with the Stonehenge Riverside Project’s excavations in 2003.
This project focused on Durrington Walls, Britain’s largest henge enclosure, which had originally been excavated by Geoff Wainwright in 1967 (CA 5). These early investigations, undertaken ahead of the rerouting of the A345, revealed the remains of two enigmatic monuments made from concentric rings of timber posts, and the modern team had set out to reassess the site and its surrounding landscape. What they discovered was decidedly more domestic in nature than the ceremonial circles, though: the remains of a late Neolithic settlement (CA 208).
While the team’s discoveries were undeniably spectacular – excavating eight houses, six of which contained the first intact late Neolithic floors ever identified in England – they had uncovered only a small portion of what is thought to have been a huge settlement, comprising an estimated 1,000 houses if the entire enclosed area was occupied. Despite its impressive scale, the settlement seems to have been surprisingly short-lived (the latest dating evidence places its occupation in a narrow window of fewer than 45 years, perhaps even as little as a decade, beginning sometime around 2525-2470 BC), but had nevertheless managed to produce one of the largest assemblages of prehistoric animal bone excavated anywhere in Europe. More than 38,000 animal bone fragments were recovered from the settlement’s midden and refuse pits, together with thousands of sherds of pottery. This was not everyday consumption, but echoes of ostentatious feasts.
More exciting still, the date of the settlement ties in with the construction of the main phase of Stonehenge, c.2500 BC, and it has been suggested that Durrington Walls could have housed the very people who erected the nearby monument. Clearly there was a much larger story to tell, and a second project, again funded by the AHRC, commenced in 2010 to make sense of the wealth of information that was emerging from the Neolithic remains. ‘Feeding Stonehenge’ applied cutting-edge techniques to the animal bones and pottery fragments to uncover what the people of Stonehenge were eating, how it was cooked, and where the food was coming from. The picture that this project revealed – now presented at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre – would prove to be more complex and surprising than any of the team expected.
The Durrington diet
‘The most exciting thing is when objects that don’t look very spectacular prove to have spectacular stories to tell,’ says Susan Greaney, Senior Properties Historian with English Heritage. Certainly, the animal bone speaks eloquently about what was on the menu at Durrington Walls. Above all, this was a very meat-dominated diet, focused on domestic cattle and pigs. By the time of Stonehenge, people in Britain has been farming for over 1,000 years – the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle had been replaced by farming and animal husbandry from around 4000 BC, when these skills arrived from the Continent as part of a wider spread of agriculture across Europe at that time (see CA 290).
Analysis of the animal remains was led by Umberto Albarella and Sarah Viner-Daniels at the University of Sheffield, and their findings suggest that the denizens of Durrington Walls were dining mostly on pork (pig bones making up around 90% of the animal remains) and a much smaller amount of beef (around 8%). Whatever the Neolithic villagers were eating, though, there was clearly plenty to go around: some of the animal bones were found articulated, meaning that they had still had meat on them when they were consigned to the ground: it seems that the feasters had more food than they could eat.
Many of the bones are so well preserved that we can even tell how the dishes were being cooked – some pigs’ legs are burnt at the end, hinting at pork being roasted over open fires (presumably on wooden spits, as the people of Britain had not yet harnessed the use of hard metals), while some of the remains also show traces of their being butchered using flint tools. These latter marks suggest that beef in particular was being cut up and cooked in pieces, perhaps in a stew. Meat was also boiled at the site, something revealed by pottery analysis by Oliver Craig and Lisa-Marie Shillito at the University of York, who examined food molecules trapped in the porous clay that help tell us what the vessels contained. Around 28% of the pots bore traces of pork fats, 51% beef fats, and 21% had once held some kind of dairy product – possibly milk, or a form of simple cheese.
Analysis of the distribution of pots containing various foodstuffs also makes interesting reading. Although pork, beef, and dairy containers can be found in all parts of the settlement, there do seem to be clear patterns and preferences as to where they were disposed of (see CA 309). Pots for boiling beef seem to have been thrown away mostly on the village’s main midden, while those for pork were particularly associated with refuse pits linked to specific houses – possibly placed there to mark the decommissioning of the dwelling, the team suggests.
The dairy pots were equally distinctive in their distribution: although some are found within the settlement proper, a large proportion was excavated within the Southern Timber Circle – one of the Neolithic wooden monuments associated with the settlement. Might this suggest that dairy products held a special, even ceremonial, status for the village’s inhabitants, in contrast to the meat dishes that dominated the middens and pits?
Modern anthropological studies suggest that milk is often seen as a special product, thanks to its white colour and associations with nourishing, purifying qualities that see it often included in gifts to the gods. That said, if dairy products were reserved for very select, special occasions at Durrington Walls, this could also be because in the late Neolithic period most people in Britain were lactose intolerant – we only developed the ability to digest raw milk in adulthood thanks to a genetic change that spread across Europe most likely during the Bronze Age. Before that, our prehistoric predecessors would only have been able to consume dairy by turning it into more easily digested low lactose products like yoghurt and cheese.
While the project team unpicked the contents of Durrington Walls’ lavish feasts, they were also able to deduce when these gastronomic gatherings were taking place. Wear patterns on the excavated pigs’ teeth allowed Lizzie Wright to work out how old the animals had been when they were slaughtered – on average, around nine months of age. Given that domesticated pigs typically farrow in the spring, that suggests that the animals were killed in the winter months, something that has important implications for our understanding of what happened at Stonehenge.
It has long been theorised that the monument was probably linked to the Solstice – both it and some of the timber arrangements at Durrington Walls were built on an alignment with the midwinter and midsummer sun – but traditionally emphasis was placed firmly on the Summer Solstice as the main event. This new evidence suggests that, on the contrary, Durrington Walls’ huge feasts were being held around the time of the Winter Solstice. While purely a matter of speculation, it is a tantalising thought to imagine people gathering at Durrington Walls for a communal meal before perhaps walking the two miles to Stonehenge to celebrate this astronomical event.
Returning to more worldly matters, the pigs’ teeth also hold clues to late Neolithic animal husbandry. Some show signs of decay, suggesting that the animals had been deliberately fattened on starchy or sweet foods – perhaps some kind of cereal mash, honey, or rotten fruit. The majority of these animals do not seem to have been reared locally, however: very few piglet or calf remains were found on the site, with the feasting debris dominated by adult animals. Adding to this picture, the refuse contained bones from every part of the animals’ skeletons, not just the limbs and portions that would yield large pieces of meat. It seems that this food was not arriving on site as pre-prepared joints, but all on the hoof, as living livestock. Where were these animals being brought from? The answer to this question would prove to be one of the most surprising aspects of the whole project.
Key to this strand of the research were strontium isotopes: chemical signatures preserved in tooth enamel, which are created by the food and water that humans and animals consume while they are growing up. By comparing these signals to the distinctive geologies in different regions of Britain, combined with data on the tooth-owner’s diet (carbon and nitrogen isotopes), how far they lived from the sea (sulphur isotopes), and their climatic zone of origin (oxygen isotopes), Richard Madgwick at Cardiff University was able to narrow down where the livestock may have come from.
Using these techniques, his study of the Durrington pig teeth and work by Sarah Viner-Daniels on the cattle teeth revealed clues to strikingly disparate origins. A number of the animals had been raised on chalklands similar to the area around Salisbury Plain and were therefore consistent with being relatively local. However, the majority of animals had chemical signals showing that they were not raised in the local landscape, with these wider-ranging results indicating that animals were brought from many different regions. Identifying origins is a complex task, even when using multiple isotope approaches, but closer examination of these results hints at potential locations as far-flung as west Wales, upland northern England, and perhaps even north-east Scotland. These are astonishing distances considering that the animals and their drovers would have been travelling on foot, or possibly by boat. Nonetheless, herding live animals would have been more practical than slaughtering the animals at home and transporting carcasses that might decay before reaching their intended destination.
Food for thought
While these results are extremely evocative, the isotope-mapping techniques used in this study are not yet an exact science, meaning that there is much in the findings to leave open to interpretation and for future studies to refine. Some of the more remote geologies identified through the analysis, for example, are also compatible with areas of Brittany, though it is thought to be very unlikely that any of the Durrington Walls animals could have been brought from across the Channel – there is no archaeological evidence for the Stonehenge area having any contact with Continental Europe at this time, and such links would only be reforged with the arrival of the first metals and new types of pottery (Beakers) in the early Bronze Age (see CA 265).
If the exact location from which these animals were travelling cannot be pinned down precisely, the project’s findings still hint at knowledge of Stonehenge stretching far across Britain, and people travelling from locations a long way from the monument to take part in feasts just two miles from the stones. We are increasingly gaining a picture of a Stonehenge that was not a ‘local monument for local people’, says Mike Parker Pearson, but ‘an island- wide project.’
It seems that our prehistoric forebears were prepared to travel far from their homes to visit sites that were somehow significant to them. Judging by the new wooden buildings that have just opened outside the Stonehenge Visitor Centre to process large coach parties – many of which are made up of tourists who have journeyed from abroad to see the famous monument – that impulse has not yet gone away.
Feast! Food at Stonehenge runs at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre until September 2018. For further details, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/history/food-feasting.
The exhibition includes material lent by the Salisbury Museum; Wiltshire Museum, Devizes; Mr and Mrs S J Rawlins and Mr and Mrs W H Rawlins; Corinium Museum, Cotswold District Council; Historic England; and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales.
The research will also feature in the Consuming Prehistory project, a collaboration between the Universities of York, Cardiff, and UCL Institute of Archaeology, which will work in partnership with English Heritage to develop outreach initiatives based on the findings of the Feeding Stonehenge Project. Watch out for related events next year.