Stonehenge-era pig roasts united ancient Britain, scientists say

A new study of bones discarded after prehistoric barbecues is providing unexpected insight into the first ‘pan-British’ gatherings.Saturday, March 16, 2019

By Kristin Romey
Many ceremonial sites built around Stonehenge in the late Neolithic period attracted people who came from all over Britain to feast, researchers say.

A surprising study of leftovers from 4,500-year-old pig roasts reveals that prehistoric ceremonial sites around Stonehenge served as “pan-British” centers that helped bring together disparate populations of Neolithic peoples from across the island for the first time. The study was published today in the journal Science Advances.

During the late Neolithic period in Britain (around 2800-2400 B.C.), large feasts were held at ceremonial centres in southern England such as Durrington Walls, where the builders of Stonehenge likely lived, and Marden, the largest circular earthworks in Britain.

Excavations at Durrington Walls, for example, have shown that enormous feasts took place there during the winter, when celebrants roasted and ate large quantities of pork and the occasional cow. Of the 8,500 bones recovered at Durrington, for instance, pigs outnumbered cattle ten to one.

Read more about the ancient British monument that’s 10 times bigger than Stonehenge.

The presence of large amounts of pig bones at other similar ceremonial sites in the region reinforces the idea that the prehistoric pork roast was a late Neolithic phenomenon in southern England. Researchers, however, remained unsure whether the purpose of these feasts was to unify a local population—much like a community barbeque— or to forge alliances between neighboring groups.

Now, a chemical analysis of the pig bones is revealing an unexpected result: The ceremonial sites, and the feasts hosted there, served as lynchpins of vast social networks across the island “demonstrating a level of interaction and social complexity not previously appreciated.”

Pigs as proxy

In recent years, scientists have tried to answer the question of how far-flung the feasters were with strontium isotope analysis, a technique that identifies a unique chemical signature that reflects the geological area that a human or animal lived in. Previous isotopic studies of cremated human remains at Stonehenge and cattle bones from Durrington Walls suggest that both may have come to the ceremonial sites from considerable distances—some as far as modern Wales.

Until now, however, researchers never bothered with analysing the isotopic signatures of pig bones recovered from sites like Durrington Walls, assuming that the pigs would have been bred locally near the feasting centres where they were butchered and eaten, and therefore would provide little useful information on where the feasters themselves came from. Cattle would have been driven by humans across great distances and could therefore be used as a proxy for human movement, they reasoned, but long-distance pig herding?

“I was worried that the pigs wouldn’t tell us where these people were coming from,” says Richard Madgwick, a lecturer in archaeological science at Cardiff University and lead author on the Science Advances article.

However, the new isotopic analysis of 131 pig remains from four different late Neolithic ceremonial sites (Durrington Walls, Marden, Mount Pleasant, and West Kennet Palisade Enclosures) reveals that the vast majority of pigs consumed at the sites were not raised locally, but rather brought by feasters from many different areas in Britain, including Wales and Scotland— at distances of at least 30 miles and potentially more than 350 miles.

The fact that these ceremonial centers drew people from many different areas in Britain, and often from considerable distances, suggests that these feasting sites weren’t just for local or regional gatherings, but rather evidence for the first "pan-British" events in history.

Swine drives

The results are also making researchers re-think their assumptions about pigs as proxies for human movement. “I was indeed quite surprised,” at the number of pigs brought into the Neolithic ceremonial centers from great distances, says Christophe Snoeck, a post-doctoral researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel who performed the strontium analysis on human remains from Stonehenge but was not involved in the current study. Snoeck also praised the fact that multiple isotopes —not just strontium—were analyzed in the pig remains, providing a richer insight into where the pigs were raised and what they ate.

For instance, the study notes that the pigs from Durrington Walls came from very different environments based on strontium, oxygen, and sulphur isotope signatures, but had a similar carbon isotope signature, which suggests they ate a similar diet. Madgwick believes that this may reflect the enormous scale of the feasts at Durrington Walls, which meant that feasters weren’t raising pigs on scraps in small household operations, but rather driving large stocks of swine through prehistoric forests to forage.

The Neolithic ceremonial site of Marden may be ten times the size of Stonehenge, and was the site of ritualized feasting.

“[The feasters] weren’t Neolithic couch potatoes,” Madgwick says, noting that people were going to “great lengths” to bring pigs to the ceremonial feasts.

This makes sense to Mark Essig, author of Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig, who has studied hog droving in the United States. “It’s a false assumption that you can’t herd a pig,” he says, noting that in the 19th century, the animals were regularly moved on foot between central Kentucky and coastal South Carolina.

“These pigs weren’t Wilbur or Babe. Pigs in the Neolithic looked like wild boar or feral pigs—skinnier with longer legs. They would have been agile and hearty enough to make a long journey on foot.”