Thursday, October 15, 2015

Large Scale Feasting at Stonehenge: Late Neolithic Menu Revealed

Archaeologists from a consortium of universities including University College London (UCL) have found out what people ate while building Stonehenge, by analysing the food residues preserved in their pots as well as the animal bones and other food waste from the large settlement of Durrington Walls near Stonehenge.

Durrington Walls and its house platforms. 
Credit: Mike Parker Pearson

Pork and beef were the prime foods, barbecued and boiled. Chemical analysis by archaeologists at the University of York of food residues inside Neolithic pots has shown that boiled pork and beef were eaten in the houses while analysis of the animal bones by researchers at Sheffield University reveals that pork and beef were also barbecued in large, open-air feasts.

Milk was also drunk or eaten – as curds-and-whey or cottage cheese – and its residues have been detected in pots from across the settlement. Pots with dairy residue also turned up more frequently than other foods in the ceremonial monuments, demonstrating that it was special, perhaps as a marker of social status or as a symbol of purity and ritual significance during public ceremonies.

Unusually, there is very little evidence that people ate vegetables or cereals. Burnt remains of crab apples, berries, hazelnut shells and other wild fruits are all that survive of this ‘meat fest’ diet. There was no evidence that any of the pots had been used for cooking greens or other vegetables.

Domestic animals were killed and eaten in huge numbers, particularly pigs. Detailed analysis of animal bones, conducted at the University of Sheffield, found that many pigs were killed before reaching their maximum weight. This is strong evidence of planned autumn and winter slaughtering and feasting-like consumption.
Stonehange.JPG
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A team of archaeologists at the University of York  revealed new insights into cuisine choices and eating habits at Durrington Walls - a Late Neolithic monument and settlement site thought to be the residence for the builders of nearby Stonehenge during the 25th century BC.

Together with researchers at the University of Sheffield, detailed analysis of pottery and animal bones has uncovered evidence of organised feasts featuring barbeque-style roasting, and an unexpected pattern in how foods were distributed and shared across the site.

Chemically analysing food residues remaining on several hundred fragments of pottery, the York team found differences in the way pots were used. Pots deposited in residential areas were found to be used for cooking animal products including pork, beef and dairy, whereas pottery from the ceremonial spaces was used predominantly for dairy.

Such spatial patterning could mean that milk, yoghurts and cheeses were perceived as fairly exclusive foods only consumed by a select few, or that milk products - today often regarded as a symbol of purity - were used in public ceremonies.
Stonehenge at sunrise, looking west - geograph.org.uk - 965442.jpg
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Unusually, there was very little evidence of plant food preparation at any part of the site. The main evidence points to mass animal consumption, particularly of pigs. Further analysis of animal bones, conducted at the University of Sheffield, found that many pigs were killed before reaching their maximum weight. This is strong evidence of planned autumn and winter slaughtering and feasting-like consumption.

The main methods of cooking meat are thought to be boiling and roasting in pots probably around indoor hearths, and larger barbeque-style roasting outdoors - the latter evidenced by distinctive burn patterns on animal bones.

Bones from all parts of the animal skeleton were found, indicating that livestock was walked to the site rather than introduced as joints of meat. Isotopic analysis indicates that cattle originated from many different locations, some far away from the site. This is significant as it would require orchestration of a large number of volunteers likely drawn from far and wide. The observed patterns of feasting do not fit with a slave-based society where labour was forced and coerced, as some have suggested.
Stonehenge detail.JPG
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dr Oliver Craig, Reader in Archaeological Science at the University of York and lead author on the paper, said: "Evidence of food-sharing and activity-zoning at Durrington Walls shows a greater degree of culinary organisation than was expected for this period of British prehistory. The inhabitants and many visitors to this site possessed a shared understanding of how foods should be prepared, consumed and disposed. This, together with evidence of feasting, suggests Durrington Walls was a well-organised working community."

Professor Mike Parker Pearson, Professor at University College London and Director of the Feeding Stonehenge project who also led the excavations at Durrington Walls, said: "This new research has given us a fantastic insight into the organisation of large-scale feasting among the people who built Stonehenge. Animals were brought from all over Britain to be barbecued and cooked in open-air mass gatherings and also to be eaten in more privately organized meals within the many houses at Durrington Walls.

"The special placing of milk pots at the larger ceremonial buildings reveals that certain products had a ritual significance beyond that of nutrition alone. The sharing of food had religious as well as social connotations for promoting unity among Britain's scattered farming communities in prehistory. "

Dr Lisa-Marie Shillito, who analysed the pottery samples and recently joined Newcastle University, added: "The combination of pottery analysis with the study of animal bones is really effective, and shows how these different types of evidence can be brought together to provide a detailed picture of food and cuisine in the past".

The main methods of cooking meat are thought to be boiling and roasting in pots probably around indoor hearths, and larger barbeque-style roasting outdoors – the latter evidenced by distinctive burn patterns on animal bones.

Durrington Walls, as seen from the south of the monument. It is bisected here to the left by one of the two roads that now cross the prehistoric site.
Durrington Walls.JPG
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As complete skeletons of animals were found and traced to different parts of Britain, the team concluded that animals were brought as livestock to the site rather than as joints of meat. This is significant as it would require orchestration of a large number of volunteers likely drawn from far and wide. The observed patterns of feasting do not fit with a slave-based society where labour was forced and coerced, as some have suggested.

Professor Mike Parker Pearson, UCL Institute of Archaeology and Director of the Feeding Stonehenge project, who also led the excavations at Durrington Walls, said: “This new research has given us a fantastic insight into the organisation of large-scale feasting among the people who built Stonehenge. Animals were brought from all over Britain to be barbecued and cooked in open-air mass gatherings and also to be eaten in more privately organized meals within the many houses at Durrington Walls.

"The special placing of milk pots at the larger ceremonial buildings reveals that certain products had a ritual significance beyond that of nutrition alone. The sharing of food had religious as well as social connotations for promoting unity among Britain’s scattered farming communities in prehistory. ”

Settlement Durrington Walls near Woodhenge, Wiltshire, England
Panorama Durrington Walls 3.jpg
Credit: Dietrich Krieger 

Dr Oliver Craig, Reader in Archaeological Science at the University of York and lead author on the paper, said: “Evidence of food-sharing and activity-zoning at Durrington Walls shows a greater degree of culinary organisation than was expected for this period of British prehistory. The inhabitants and many visitors to this site possessed a shared understanding of how foods should be prepared, consumed and disposed. This, together with evidence of feasting, suggests Durrington Walls was a well-organised working community.”



Contacts and sources: 
University of York 
University College London (UCL)

Citation: Research paper in Antiquity

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