If you enjoy tailgating before a sporting event, you’d fit right in at the barbecues Stonehenge builders were hosting in their neighborhood thousands of years ago. A new analysis of animal bones and pottery found at Durrington Walls, a Late Neolithic monument and settlement thought to be the place where builders of nearby Stonehenge lived, revealed residents enjoyed large-scale barbecues and ceremonial feasts. The menu options at the time, researchers say, indicate culinary organization in Britain during the 25^th century B.C. was more advanced than previously thought.
Today, Durrington Walls is a C-shaped, man-made earthen berm built some 4,500 years ago, about 2 miles northeast of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. In its heyday, it is believed that Durrington Walls housed one of the largest Neolithic settlements in Europe. Researchers at the universities of York and Sheffield chemically analyzed bones and food remains clinging to several hundred pottery fragments discovered at Durrington Wall’s residential and ceremonial areas. After analyzing the lipid residue, the researchers determined that the site's ancient residents feasted mostly on pork, beef and dairy. Surprisingly, there was little to suggest that vegetarian options were provided. Rather, evidence points to mass consumption of meat, particularly pigs.
Sheep graze on the western bank of Durrington Walls, as seen from Woodhenge. (Credit: Psychostevouk/Wikimedia Commons) The feasts also appeared to be highly organized. Specific types of pots were used to prepare each type of food. Dairy, for example, was found only in shards unearthed in the ceremonial areas of Durrington Walls, suggesting that milk and cheese played a role in public rituals. Further analysis of pig bones indicated the animals were killed before reaching maturity, providing strong evidence that they were slaughtered and cooked as part of an autumn or winter feast that brought the community together to dine. Isotopic evidence from cow bones suggests the animals were escorted to Durrington Walls from numerous locations, further suggesting a highly organized culinary operation. The team published its findings in the journal Antiquity.
Bringing in animals from afar, slaughtering them and cooking them for large-scale feasts takes some organizational skills — more than what’s traditionally attributed to Late Neolithic cultures. The feasts and ceremonies may have helped build a sense of community among the isolated farming communities that lived in the area at that time in history. “This new research has given us 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,” says University College London’s Mike Pearson, who led the excavations at Durrington Walls. Today, we still marvel at the level of planning and engineering it took to build Stonehenge. It’s not surprising that the folks who built it could also put together a top-notch barbecue.