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Ancient festive feasts: midwinter celebrations at the time of Stonehenge

Posted:
21 December 2017
Posted By:
Dr Lizzie Wright
Categories:
History Uncovered
Reconstruction showing how Stonehenge might have looked at sunset on the winter solstice in about 2200 BC.

When you’re tucking into your celebratory feasts over the festive break, don’t forget that midwinter celebrations are nothing new. People of many cultures and religions have been feasting at this time of year for thousands of years. It’s no coincidence that the Christian festival of Christmas falls close to the midwinter solstice – the shortest day of the year. From then on, the days become longer and warmer, and this is a cause for celebration – with copious amounts of food!

Dr Lizzie Wright looks at some of the clearest archaeological evidence found so far for prehistoric midwinter feasting, which comes from Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge.

The builders of Stonehenge?

The late Neolithic site of Durrington Walls is thought to have been the settlement where the people who built Stonehenge lived. It was occupied at around the same time that the stones at Stonehenge were erected (about 2500 BC) and appears to have had a ceremonial function. Both sites seem to have had particular significance during midwinter. The Southern Circle at Durrington Walls is oriented to the midwinter sunrise, in a complementary arrangement to the orientation of Stonehenge, where the Avenue and stone circle are arranged to focus on the midwinter sunset.

At midwinter, the setting sun is aligned with the stone circle and the Avenue at Stonehenge.

At midwinter, the setting sun is aligned with the stone circle and the Avenue at Stonehenge. © Historic England (drawing by Marcus Abbott/ArcHeritage)

Animal bones

Tens of thousands of animal bones have been recovered during recent excavations at Durrington Walls. Their study has led to some exciting revelations about how the animals were being kept during the Neolithic period and what part they had both in everyday eating and in feasting.

Pigs were by far the most common animal found (followed by cattle), so must have formed an important part of the diet. Pigs are fast-growing and have large litters, which makes them ideal animals to use for the production of meat for feasts. Large quantities can be produced far more quickly than from cattle or sheep.

The pig remains were mostly deposited in large mounds, known as middens – essentially prehistoric rubbish dumps. Excavating a midden is every archaeologist’s dream. Preservation in them tends to be very good, because they formed quickly as people piled more and more rubbish onto them. This protected the remains underneath.

But how can we tell whether the remains result from feasting?

Excavating a midden at Durrington Walls

Excavating a midden at Durrington Walls. © Stonehenge Riverside Project

Midwinter slaughter

First, most of the pigs were killed at a very specific time of year.

When studying animal remains from archaeological sites, one of the things we aim to discover is how old the animals were when they died. Across a whole population this can tell us what choices people were making about how they looked after their animals. Were they killing them at the best age for meat, or in the case of cattle, for milk, or sheep, for wool?

The most common way of finding out is by looking at which teeth each animal had when it died. Did it have all its adult teeth, or were some milk teeth still present? Were some teeth still erupting? We then look at how worn down the teeth are. As a general rule, the more worn down the teeth, the older the animal.

Pigs are generally only kept for their meat. Our team at the University of Sheffield was able to study 385 pig mandibles (lower jaws) and 447 maxillae (upper jaws) from Durrington Walls, which is a very high number from just one archaeological site. We discovered that the pigs were overwhelmingly being killed quite young, at around nine months of age. The most likely time of year that pigs would have been born during the Neolithic period was spring, so when they were nine months old it would have been midwinter.

This pattern of killing is particularly interesting because this is an earlier age than you would normally expect to get the best quality meat from a pig. So there must have been a good reason for the people at Durrington Walls to kill these animals early.

Pig's teeth like these from Durrington Walls provide crucial evidence of the pigs' age when they were killed.

Pig’s teeth like these from Durrington Walls provide crucial evidence of the animals’ age when they were killed. Photo © English Heritage, courtesy of the Stonehenge Riverside Project

Piling up

Secondly, the animal remains in the Durrington Walls middens were very well preserved, and seem to have been covered over extremely quickly. This indicates that a lot of material must have been put onto the mound during each use.

We can tell that the bones were left undisturbed after they were thrown away, because we often found a number of bones from the same limb together, presumably in the exact place where they had been dumped. And we didn’t see much evidence of gnawing by dogs, which is what we would expect if the bones had been exposed for any length of time.

Reconstruction of the Southern Circle and part of the settlement at Durrington Walls in about 2500 BC.

Reconstruction of the Southern Circle (right) and part of the settlement at Durrington Walls in about 2500 BC. © Historic England (drawing by Peter Lorimer)

Roasted on the bone

Finally, the pig remains display a regular pattern of butchery and burning on particular bones from the fore-limbs and hind-limbs. These bones had chop and cut marks indicating that they had been separated at the joint of the upper and lower part of each limb.

The bones at these joints often had burnt patches on them, which didn’t extend across the whole bone, or onto the main shaft of long bones. This suggests that just the ends of the bones were exposed to the fire, and that the rest of the bone would still have had meat on it. The regularity of this pattern shows that the burning wasn’t the result of accidental contact with fire, but was related to roasting the meat on the bone.

This pig bone (part of a humerus) shows clear evidence of burning at one end

This pig bone (part of a humerus) shows clear evidence of burning at one end, evidence that pork was being roasted over open fires. Photo © Umberto Albarella and Dale Serjeantson

The pig remains from Durrington Walls provide important evidence that midwinter feasting was taking place here at around the time that Stonehenge was being built. We don’t know if this was a construction camp for the work taking place there, or a place for gatherings and ritual celebrations at midwinter solstice once it was complete. But we do know that Durrington Walls must have been an important place, because people travelled long distances – with their animals – to get here.

They were gathering in large numbers, eating massive quantities of pork and celebrating midwinter. That doesn’t sound too dissimilar to our seasonal festivities at midwinter today!

You can find out much more about Neolithic feasting at our new special exhibition at Stonehenge, and from our website.

Top image: Reconstruction showing how Stonehenge might have looked at sunset on the winter solstice in about 2200 BC. © Historic England (drawing by Peter Lorimer)

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  • About the Author

    Dr Lizzie Wright
    Dr Lizzie Wright is the zooarchaeologist at Northern Archaeological Associates Ltd, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. She is a specialist in the study of animal remains from archaeological sites.

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