Stonehenge builders herded animals all the way from Scotland for lavish Neolithic feasts
The findings were unveiled by English Heritage to mark the opening of an exhibition at the Stonehenge museum in Wiltshire called ‘Feast! Food at Stonehenge.’
Discarded animal teeth and bones excavated at the site suggest that cows and pigs were herded hundreds of miles along ancient byways to Stonehenge, and may even have been brought to southern England by boat.
The revelation could mean that Stonehenge was not a typical village in 2500BC, but a site of pilgrimage, feasting and celebration, according to research carried out by University College London (UCL), and the Universities of York, Cardiff, and Sheffield.
Scientists examined some 38,000 bones and teeth discovered at the site of a Neolithic village called Durrington Wells, which lies about a mile-and-a-half north of the main stone ring. Around 90 percent of these were from pigs, and the remaining 10 percent were from cattle.
Durrington Wells was only settled for between 50 and 100 years, but it is believed to have accommodated the people who built Stonehenge.
“This research shows people were raising cattle and pigs all around Britain and bringing them to Stonehenge. That means people were aware of Stonehenge all around the country,” English Heritage historian Susan Greaney told the Guardian.
“It’s incredible to think how big the catchment of Stonehenge was. The ones who came from northeast Scotland probably arrived by boat. Perhaps each community had to bring their own pig.”
The age of the pigs when they were slaughtered can be deduced by assessing the extent to which the teeth were worn down.
“They were mostly being killed when they were nine months old,” Greaney said.
“Normally they were born in spring, so it makes sense they were being killed in midwinter. The midwinter solstice is enshrined in the layout of Stonehenge, so perhaps people were coming for solstice celebrations.
“That would also make sense because it is a time of year when they would have been less busy raising animals and so on,” added the historian.
Some of the pig teeth were found to have decayed, suggesting that the animals were fattened with honey or cereal mash. Their feet and lower legs had scorch marks, which is probably a sign that they were roasted over open fires. Beef had been cut into chunks and may have been cooked in stews.
The fact that the animals were found without their bones broken suggests that the prehistoric consumers were not intent on squeezing every bit of nourishment from the meat.
“They weren’t living hand-to-mouth. This was gluttonous excess,” Greaney said.
The exhibition displays the skull of an aurochs, the now-extinct wild cow with huge curved horns that used to roam Britain; and a bronze cauldron dating from 700BC, which was found at the bottom of a lake in south Wales.