Feeding the ‘builders of Stonehenge’

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Neolithic Food Miles

This artist’s impression shows the late Neolithic settlement of Durrington Walls and its timber monuments, which lie just two miles from Stonehenge. The village is thought to have housed the people who erected the famous monument. (Image: English Heritage, by Peter Lorimer)
A newly opened exhibition at Stonehenge documents the diet of the community thought to have been responsible for erecting the main phase of the monument – including the surprisingly far-flung origins of some of their food. Carly Hilts spoke to Susan Greaney, Richard Madgwick, and Mike Parker Pearson at the exhibition launch to find out more.

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.

Durrington Walls is thought to have contained as many as 1,000 houses; eight have been excavated. a cluster of Neolithic dwellings have been reconstructed at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre to explore ideas of how these may have looked. (Photo: Adam Stanford, Aerial-Cam)

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
Over 38,000 animal-bone fragments have been recovered from Durrington Walls, mostly from pigs (part of a humerus is shown here) and cattle. The fact that the ends of lower limbs were burnt suggests meat was roasted on a spit. (Photo: Umberto Albarella and Dale Serjeantson)

‘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 huntergatherer 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

Some of the pig remains that were examined during the project revealed signs of tooth decay, hinting that they had been deliberately fattened on starchy or sweet foods. (Photo: English Heritage / Claire Kendall; Lender: Mr and Mrs S J Rawlins and Mr and Mrs W H Rawlins)

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.

Further information

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 and find out more here: https://consumingprehistory.wordpress.com/

This is a feature published in CA 334. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

1 Comment

  1. Most interesting article. We have learnt more and more about Stonehenge, its environs and history in the past decade than in the past100+ years

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