"The Feast of Stonehenge and Beyond: Investigating Mobility in Late Neolithic Britain"
Seminar by Dr Richard Madgwick, Cardiff University
Report by Ruaidhrí O Maolagáin
The Feasting of Stonehenge and Beyond
The late Neolithic in Britain and Ireland was a period from around 3000-2200 BC. This time is seen as a transitional period due to the new scale of labour mobilisation which lead to the building of Irish passage tombs such as Knowth and Dowth, and Maeshowe in Britain. After the construction of the passage tombs came the building of circles and henge enclosures and in England there is a concentration of stone circles in Wessex. There are many circular enclosures across the landscape and most have a timber enclosure accompanied by a megalithic component which generally consists of a stone circle. It is not clear as to the specific function of such monuments and there is much debate on the topic. Some ideas suggest that they may have served as power centres of chiefdoms, as places for alliance formation and feasting or as part of a ceremonial landscape. The different monuments within a single site could each have had a separate significance such as one representing life and another death. It does seem clear that these sites were centres for people coming together even though the specific reason is unknown.
At these type of sites lots of domestic animal remains turn up such as cows, pigs and sheep. At Durrington Walls such assemblages were found. However, 90% of this faunal assemblages consisted of pig remains. Lots of grooved ware pottery was also discovered and this represents the sharing of ideas and identity between Ireland and Britain at this time and little contact with Europe. Pottery fragments have the ability to retain the fats of the food which was processed in them in their fabric. Analysis of these fats can give information on the type of food which they contained. At ceremonial sites 40% of the vessels found had residue from pig processing but West Kennet palisade enclosure had 67%. At Durrington Walls there was only 27% of the pots having pig remains even though pigs made up 90% of the faunal assemblage. This difference leads to the question of how these pigs were being processed. TEM analysis was further used on the pig remains to give more information on the cooking practices. This method is not frequently used in studies. Some fibres showed evidence of heating, and this was probably from cooking directly over a fire. If the bone fibres showed no evidence of heating this was viewed as evidence for direct filleting of the meat off the bone. The results from this appear to coincide with the lipid analysis; some meat was cooked while some was filleted.
At Durrington Walls house structures were found containing hearths. These houses were lightly built, so evidence for them could be hard to find and easily be destroyed by ploughing. These houses seem to have been only occupied for a period of about 40 year and it is unclear if this occupation was seasonal or constant. To give a clearer insight into the occupation pattern the teeth of pigs from the site were examined. Cement in pigs’ teeth develops in bands of light and dark material, and counting these bands can give the age of the animal. The outermost band represents the season in which the animal was killed. From this studies seem to show a winter occupation at the sight, but for this method to be reliable the animals would need to have had a similar diet and a tight birth range.
The animals at these sites were not all locally bred. Some of the cattle from Durrington Walls were not from the area. At Stonehenge some local materials were used in its construction but the inner circle stones originated in the Preseli hills in Wales which is a long distance away. This opens the question of where the people who were visiting the sites were coming from. Isotope analysis was carried out on some animal remains from the site in an attempt to determine the location in which they were bred. One element used in this method is strontium. Different areas have different strontium values, and animals that live in a particular area will have the corresponding strontium value in their bones and teeth. Bones cannot be used in this sort of analysis as they are too porous and when buried they will take up the strontium value of the soil that they are contained in. teeth are less porous and preserve the life value better. In Durrington Walls cattle teeth were examined for their strontium values, and the results showed that only a small number of the cattle were local and some of these animals must have come from the northern England or Scotland. However, cattle remains only make up about 8% of the assemblage from this site.
Pigs make up the majority of the assemblages at these type of sites so would be more reliable for studying. A number of different sites were chosen to see if any non-local pigs were present. Non-local were found at every site meaning that the teeth had not taken up the local strontium value, and therefore were uncontaminated. If every pig appeared to be local it could be assumed that the samples were contaminated. A multi isotope analysis was carried out on 132 pig remains, both mandibles and teeth, from Mount Pleasant, Durrington walls, Marden and West Kennet palisade enclosure. The isotopes used in the study were, Carbon 13, Strontium 87/86, Oxygen 18, Sulphur 34 and Nitrogen 15. The aims of this study was to find out if the pigs were supplied from a certain area, how they were raised and on what type of diet. The presence of C13 would indicate a marine food supply for the animals, whereas N15 would mean they were fed on meat. The study found a wide spread of carbon values suggesting that the pigs were not fed on a specific subscribed diet and that they fed from different environments. The food that was eaten was mostly plants and there was no marine input found. The samples from Mount Pleasant showed the widest range of pig distribution. At Durrington Walls some of the pigs appear to have been raised on forest fodder. This probably occurred because the large scale feasting on pigs required them to be raised on all available land types to meet the demand. Sulphur isotope levels above 14ppm indicate that an animal was raised close to the coast. At Durrington Walls 25% of the animals were raised at the coast even though the site is roughly 56km from the sea. The other sites also showed a high percentage of costal animals. Durrington Walls had the largest amount of local pigs, with Mount Pleasant also appearing to have had a local stock. Out of the 132 pigs sampled only 10 of them are local to the area in which they were found. The local range was defined by the biosphere data of the area. Cluster analysis showed that the pigs came from 27 different regions but this is probably an underestimation. Two of the pigs might have come from the South West of Ireland. It is difficult to match the isotope readings to specific areas and the resolution of it is relatively low.
Pigs were very popular feasting animals and this could be for a number of different reasons. Pork meat preserves well and it is quick and easy to obtain the meat. A large number of pigs can also be killed at once, as pigs have large litters the numbers can quickly be replenished and so only a few need to be kept. Pigs may have been regarded as high status animals since they do not produce any secondary products such as milk or wool. It appears that the pigs were brought alive to the sites and then killed there. At some of the sites the pigs have pieces of flint in them that suggest that the pigs were shot with an arrow to be killed. This method of killing may have some ritual significance that is unknown.
The pigs at these sites were brought long distances from all across the British Islands. The animals used in the feasting were raised on a wide variety of different landscapes and diets meaning that no particular method of raising was required. Isotope analysis gives some indication to the regions that the animals originated from but the resolution is quite low and the method still has a long way to go. At all the sites there is the deliberate practice of bringing your own pig to the place instead of buying one when you arrive, but the significance of this is yet unknown.