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Artifacts Around Stonehenge Shed Light on the Diet of Its Builders

Roasting and boiling in pots, around indoor hearths and larger barbecue-style roasting outdoors, were the main methods of cooking meat in ancient times. (Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain)
Roasting and boiling in pots, around indoor hearths and larger barbecue-style roasting outdoors, were the main methods of cooking meat in ancient times. (Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain)

Archaeologists from the University of York have now revealed new insights into food choices and the eating habits at the Late Neolithic monument Durrington Walls. It is also believed to be the residence of the Stonehenge builder’s during 2500 B.C.

Working with researchers from the University of Sheffield, the team of archaeologists were able to uncover evidence of barbecue-style roasting, which was part of organized feasts. The discovery was made after a detailed analysis of pottery and animal bones. Researchers also found an unexpected pattern in how foods were distributed and shared across the worker settlement, according to a statement from the University of York.

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 organization 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 of. This, together with evidence of feasting, suggests Durrington Walls was a well-organized working community.”

Part of several hundred found pieces, from Durrington Wall (settlement associated with building Stonehenge), being examined in mid 2011. It is marked as "The Beasts Wife", which may suggest that it is an accompanying piece to a much larger fragment. (Image: CASTLESANDCOPROLITES/Wikimedia Commons,CC BY-SA 3.0)

Part of several hundred found pieces from Durrington Wall (settlement associated with building Stonehenge) being examined in mid-2011. It is marked as ‘The Beast’s Wife,’ which may suggest that it is an accompanying piece to a much larger fragment. (Image: CASTLESANDCOPROLITES/Wikimedia Commons,CC BY-SA 3.0)

After chemically analyzing the food residues on several hundred fragments of pottery, the team discovered differences in the way pots were used. The pot fragments found in ceremonial spaces were used predominantly for dairy, where the fragments found residential areas were used for the cooking animal products (pork, beef, and dairy).

Archaeologists believe, because of the spatial patterning milk, yogurts, and cheeses may have been seen as an exclusive food and only consumed by a select few, or milk products could have been used in public ceremonies.

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: “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.”

There was very little evidence of any plant food preparation at the site, which researchers found unusual. There was however a large amount of evidence pointing toward mass animal consumption, of which pigs were the main animal.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield conducted further analysis of animal bones, and found many pigs had not reached their maximum weight before being killed.

This is strong evidence of planned autumn and winter slaughtering and feasting-like consumption,

wrote the University of York.

The roasting and boiling in pots, most likely around indoor hearths and the larger barbecue-style roasting outdoors are the main methods of cooking meat, the researchers wrote. By looking at distinctive burn patterns on the animal bones, researchers were able to determine that they were cooked in a similar way to a barbecue.

Dr. Lisa-Marie Shillito, who analyzed the pottery samples, said: “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.”

Because whole skeletons of the animals were found, it indicates the livestock were alive at the site rather than just pieces of meat being brought to the feast. After testing the bones, it has been found that the livestock came from many locations.

“[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 labor was forced and coerced, as some have suggested,” wrote the University of York.

Pearson said: “This new research has given them a fantastic insight into the organization 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,” he said.

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