The secrets surrounding Stonehenge and its creation have captivated minds for centuries, with each discovery about the landmark peeling away a layer of its mystery. Now, a new study has revealed the dietary—and celebratory—secrets of the legendary builders. And the results show that our Neolithic ancestors knew how to feast and throw a party for the ages.
Archaeologists from a consortium of UK universities, working in conjunction with a new English Heritage exhibition, Feeding Stonehenge, analyzed food residue and lipids found in in pots and bones scattered around Durrington Walls. The settlement is about a mile and a half northeast of Stonehenge, and is believed to have been home base for the ancient builders for roughly 50 years—beginning around 2,500 B.C.
There, they uncovered evidence of a diet full of pork and dairy products, which were likely consumed as part of regular celebrations held in the fall or winter, coinciding with milestones in Stonehenge’s construction.
A diet this rich differs from evidence found at other Neolithic sites (which have been more plant-based), making the Durrington Walls’ residents the exception to the Stone Age rule.
In fact, prior to this discovery, genetic evidence had indicated that people from this era were likely lactose intolerant. According to York University professor Oliver Craig, that means that the milk residue found at the site was the leftovers of processed cheese and dairy products.” As he toldThe Guardian, “We think these milk-based foodstuffs had special significance. They may have been associated with purity or fertility, for example, and were consumed in a special area.”
“More than 4,500 years have passed since the main part of Stonehenge was constructed,” exhibition curator Susan Greaney toldThe Guardian. “But thanks to the sophistication of techniques we now have for dating and identifying chemicals, we can deduce – from food fragments left in pots and from the bones left in the ground – what meals were being consumed there.”
The presence of pork at the site was in no short supply as well. Greaney toldThe Telegraph, that “masses and masses” of pork were found at Durrington Walls. And the Stonehenge builders weren’t just eating any old pork dish, they were, literally, sweeting up the pigs before the kill. Due to the decay that was found on the teeth of the pigs, it’s likely they were fed a sweetened diet, possibly containing honey, before being butchered and spit-roasted over a fire pit or indoor hearths.
And, like the stones that gave Stonehenge its name, these animals were likely transported to the site. As Mike Parker Pearson, a University College London professor and Director of the Feeding Stonehenge, noted “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.”
These Neolithic barbeques would have been quite the scene, and they may have had more in common with our more modern, wasteful society than we could have imagined. The decadence of the Durrington Walls festivals dwarfs other cultures of the time. Little meat was left on the ancient bones, and the site was littered with half-eaten chops. Greaney toldThe Guardian, “This could have been the country’s first throw-away culture.” And, according to Craig, “People were killing animals, stringing them up and eating them on a massive scale. It must have been quite a show.”
Alas, the lavish life of these Stonehenge builders wasn’t a yearlong celebration. According to Craig, it was likely that a more modest diet of fruits and vegetables were the norm outside of these festivals.
But the new discovery provides a look at the lives of the people who built one of the world’s greatest structures. And while questions remain as to how Stonehenge was built, this insight into the builders themselves gives us all a little something to savor.