Today, especially at the midsummer and midwinter solstices, people travel thousands of miles to gather and celebrate at Stonehenge. In the late Neolithic period it was a gathering place too: the contemporary site of Durrington Walls, which lies around 2 miles north-east of Stonehenge, played host to enormous feasts around the time that the Stonehenge sarsens were raised, about 4,500 years ago. But where did all the people who gathered here come from, and how do we know? Dr Richard Madgwick explains what the latest research reveals.
We think Durrington Walls had a seasonal population numbering in the thousands. This makes it among the largest known settlements in north-west Europe during this period. Excavations there have recovered tens of thousands of animal bones – overwhelmingly dominated by pigs – and a vast quantity of distinctive pottery known as Grooved Ware. These remains provide strong evidence for vast feasts, perhaps associated with ceremonies at Stonehenge itself.
It has long been suggested that these events drew people and their animals from beyond the surrounding landscape. Establishing where they came from has proved a long-standing enigma in British prehistory. However, scientific analysis of the remains may now be able to address this issue.
Very little human bone has been recovered from Durrington Walls, and the human remains found at Stonehenge had all been cremated and are therefore not suited to most methods of analysis. However, the remains of domestic animals provide a valuable resource for exploring movement, as people must have brought them there.
We’ve known for a while that some cattle were brought from elsewhere, but until recently the origins of pigs – the main feasting animal – had not been explored. There are problems with using pigs to understand human movement, which is why they haven’t been the focus of research before. Any pig farmer will tell you that pigs are not easy to move over distance. In addition, pigs were the main domestic animal in late Neolithic Britain and would have been common in the landscape around Stonehenge. So even if people were coming from far and wide, they could have sourced a pig locally to contribute to the feasts. This would have been far easier than moving one that they had raised themselves.
On top of this, pigs weren’t considered suitable for some forms of scientific analysis, as their teeth weren’t thought to be as dense as those of humans or cattle. New research has, however, shown that scientific methods do indeed work for pigs, and we therefore decided to embark on a study of this key feasting animal.
Our new research has explored the pigs’ origins using a method known as isotope analysis. This analyses the chemical make-up of bones and teeth and can be used to explore origins and movement. Every time humans and animals consume food and drink, a chemical signal is transferred into bodily tissues, including bones and teeth. As teeth don’t change once they have developed, analysing some chemical elements found in animals’ teeth provides distinct clues as to where they were raised.
Our research, at Cardiff University and the British Geological Survey (with Professor Jane Evans and Dr Angela Lamb), involved analysing strontium, oxygen and sulphur isotopes in 89 pigs from Durrington Walls. These provide indicators of the geology, climate and distance from the coast of the region where the animals were raised. Using these techniques in tandem provides a better opportunity for understanding how far people were travelling to reach Durrington Walls.
Animals from far and wide
The isotope results were exceptionally wide-ranging. They provide clear evidence not only that pigs were being brought from beyond the local landscape, but that they came from far and wide across Britain. The strontium and oxygen values spanned almost the whole range of variation possible in Britain. This shows that animals had been brought from the east and west of Britain and from both highland and lowland areas.
Although the sulphur values showed slightly less variation, they indicated that many of the pigs came from coastal areas, even though Durrington Walls is over 30 miles from the sea. While it remains difficult to pinpoint precise locations, some of the very high strontium values raise the possibility that some animals came all the way from the northern reaches of Britain, even as far as Scotland.
A monumental undertaking
Clearly Durrington Walls was a lynchpin in the landscape, drawing in people and animals from far and wide for grand feasts. It’s not just the scale of movement that’s surprising, but the volume, since few of the animals appear to have been locally raised. Why were people going to such lengths?
Just as a globalised diet is common today, it may be that at certain times of year people in the late Neolithic period also enjoyed produce from across the known world. They clearly went to great lengths to contribute pigs that they had raised themselves. Perhaps there were rules dictating that feast participants had to offer an animal they had raised, ensuring that the feasts were supplied with food from across Britain.
It’s likely that these animals were brought on the hoof, rather than slaughtered and brought as prepared cuts of meat, because bones from the whole skeleton are present at Durrington Walls. Whether over land or by sea and river, this would have been a monumental undertaking. Yet the transport of bluestones to Stonehenge from the Preseli Hills in Wales demonstrates the challenges that were overcome at these monuments.
These feasts may have been the first united British events, with the scale of population movement across Britain arguably not evidenced in any other phase in prehistory. It’s clear that these long-distance networks, reflected in shared traditions of decorating pottery and of building stone and timber monuments, were sustained not only by the movement of people, but also of livestock.
This research certainly doesn’t represent the final word on the origins of the people and animals at Durrington Walls. With improved isotope methods and mapping we hope that in the future we can get closer to pinpointing exactly where people and animals came from.
There’s still time to visit our exhibition, Feast! Food at Stonehenge, which runs at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre until September. You can also find out more about Neolithic feasting from our website.