Milk, yoghurt and cheese eaten in exclusive ceremonies around Stonehenge feasts, say archaeologists

By Ben Miller | 13 October 2015

Evidence from settlement where Stonehenge builders lived suggests well-organised community feasting

A photo of a large prehistoric settlement once used by builders near the site of Stonehenge
Experts in York compiled a detailed picture of food and cuisine near Stonehenge© Mike Parker Pearson
Milk, yoghurt and cheeses could have been seen as “exclusive” foods or eaten predominantly in public ceremonies around the time Stonehenge was built, according to archaeologists using pottery and animal bones to analyse food from organised feasts during the 25th century BC.

New evidence from Durrington Walls, a late Neolithic monument and settlement site where the builders of nearby Stonehenge are thought to have lived, shows that pots in ceremonial spaces mainly carried dairy produce. Barbeque-style roasted pork and beef was detected in the chemicals of cooking vessels found in residential areas from the period.

“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 organised meals within the many houses at Durrington Walls,” says Professor Mike Parker Pearson, the University College London Professor who is the Director of the Feeding Stonehenge project.

“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. ”

“This new research has given us a fantastic insight into the organisation of large-scale feasting among the people who built Stonehenge.”

Together with researchers at the University of Sheffield, Parker Pearson’s team found “very little” evidence of plant food preparation across the site. They say mass animal consumption – particularly of pigs who were killed before reaching their maximum weight – presents “strong evidence” of planned autumn and winter slaughtering ahead of feasts.

“Evidence of food-sharing and activity-zoning at Durrington Walls shows a greater degree of culinary organisation than was expected for this period of British prehistory,” says Dr Oliver Craig, of the University of York, the lead author on the new paper in archaeological journal Antiquity.

“The inhabitants and many visitors to this site possessed a shared understanding of how foods should be prepared, consumed and disposed. This, together with evidence of feasting, suggests Durrington Walls was a well-organised working community.”

Feasting in the time of Stonehenge

  • The main method of cooking meat is thought to have been boiling and roasting in pots – probably around indoor hearths.

  • Larger barbeque-style roasting was found to have taken place outdoors, evidenced by distinctive burn patterns on animal bones.

  • Bones from all parts of the animal skeleton were found, indicating that livestock was walked to the site rather than introduced as joints of meat.

  • Isotopic analysis indicates that cattle originated from many different locations – some far away from the site. This suggests a large number of volunteers were likely to have been drawn from far and wide.

  • The patterns of feasting contradict suggestions of a slave-based society where labour was forced and coerced.

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Three museums to discover Stonehenge stories in

Stonehenge - English Heritage, Amesbury
Surrounded by mystery, Stonehenge never fails to impress. The true meaning of this ancient, awe-inspiring creation has been lost in the mists of time. Was it a temple for sun worship, a healing centre, a burial site or perhaps a huge calendar?

Wiltshire Museum, Devizes
Founded more than 150 years ago, the museum preserves the rich archaeological and historical treasures and records of Wiltshire, including the World Heritage Site of Avebury and Stonehenge.

The Salisbury Museum and Wessex Gallery of Archaeology
Home of the Stonehenge gallery, Warminster Jewel and famous Monkton Deverill gold torc, as well as displays of prehistory in Early Man; Romans and Saxons; the medieval history of Old Sarum and Salisbury (with the renowned Giant and Hob Nob); the Pitt Rivers (father of modern scientific archaeology) collection; ceramics and costume; a pre-NHS surgery and Turner watercolours.
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