Monumental meeting points in Neolithic Britain

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Richard Madgwick preparing one of the samples. (IMAGE: Cardiff University)

Previous isotopic analysis of animal remains from Durrington Walls, a large henge enclosure 3km northeast of Stonehenge, demonstrated that both cattle and pigs were brought to the complex from across Britain (see CA 334). Now, a further study looking at pig bones from three other nearby Neolithic sites, as well as examining the Durrington Wall pigs more thoroughly, has found that this was not an anomaly – it seems that all these complexes served as meeting points for people from across the British Isles.

A team led by Richard Madgwick from Cardiff University analysed the remains of 131 pigs from four late Neolithic (c.2800-2400 BC) complexes: Durrington Walls; Mount Pleasant, a henge enclosure in Dorchester; West Kennet Palisade Enclosures (WKPE), which is part of the Avebury complex; and Marden, Britain’s largest henge monument, located between Stonehenge and Avebury.

To figure out where the pigs had come from, the researchers carried out a multi-isotope study, assessing strontium for geology, oxygen for climate, sulphur for coastal proximity, and carbon and nitrogen for diet. The results showed the pigs appear to have been exceptionally wide-ranging, falling into isotope ranges that cover the majority of Britain. In particular, eight of the samples were highly radiogenic, with strontium values greater than 0.7131. This indicates that, based on the combination of their strontium, oxygen, and sulphur isotope values, some of these animals came from as far away as north-east Scotland.

A pig’s mandible from Durrington Walls, used in the study. (IMAGE: Cardiff University)

Also of note is that while the majority of pigs from Mount Pleasant were shown to have been raised near the sea, something that would be in keeping with the coastal location of the site, their oxygen isotopes indicate instead that they were more likely from an area along the east coast of England. In all, very few of the samples seem to have been raised locally: only 13 (15%) from Durrington Walls, four (22%) from Mount Pleasant, none from WKPE, and one (13%) from Marden are consistent with being local.

In the paper highlighting these results, recently published in Science Advances, the team describes the importance of the study: ‘The evidence for wide-ranging origins [of these pigs] demonstrates that complexes were not just power bases in the heartland of regional groups, at which feasting events acted to unify a disparate, yet broadly local populace, nor were these sites of reciprocal feasting, where alliances between neighbouring groups were forged and consolidated. These centres were lynchpins for a much greater scale of connectivity, involving disparate groups from across Britain.’

It is also important to note the difficulty in transporting pigs, suggesting that this was a calculated effort on the part of these Neolithic farmers: ‘Pigs are not nearly as well suited to movement over distance as bovids, and transporting them, either slaughtered or on the hoof, over hundreds or even tens of kilometres would have required a monumental effort. This suggests that prescribed contributions were required and that rules dictated that offered pigs must be raised by the feasting participants, accompanying them on their journey, rather than being acquired locally.’

The paper can be read for free here:

This article appeared in CA 351.

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