Early Brits Came to Stonehenge From All Over – and Brought Pigs

Stonehenge as it looks in 2019. (William Dotinga / CNS)

(CN) – Considered one of the great architectural wonders of the ancient world, Stonehenge drew large crowds of people throughout the late Neolithic Era from across the British Isles for great feasts. And according to a new analysis published Wednesday, they brought bacon.

“This study demonstrates a scale of movement and level of social complexity not previously appreciated,” said Dr. Richard Madgwick, of Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion who led the study published in the journal Science Advances.

More than a million tourists from around the world visit Stonehenge each year, according to the English Heritage charity which oversees the site. Around 2500 B.C. during the later Neolithic Era, or Stone Age, researchers estimate that upwards of 4,000 migrants visited the site annually. They traveled from far away as Scotland for feats considered “unrivaled in earlier periods and rarely paralleled even after the Roman invasion,” according to researchers.

“These gatherings could be seen as the first united cultural events of our island, with people from all corners of Britain descending on the areas around Stonehenge to feast on food that had been specially reared and transported from their homes,” Madgwick said in a statement.

To better understand these important feasts, Madgwick’s researchers studied jaw bones and teeth from 131 pigs found at four sites surrounding Stonehenge near present-day Salisbury in southwest England: Durington Walls, Marden, Mount Pleasant, and the West Kennet Palisade Enclosures.

Evidence from the study suggests many pigs were transported from the nearby coast and from as far away as Scotland, northeast England, and western Wales, overturning previous assumptions that pigs were raised locally near feasting sites.

While the bone samples were radiocarbon-dated to the late Neolithic period, researchers also chose bones associated with a particular type of pottery drawing a link to known feasts. The presence of the pottery, known as Grooved ware, is not only an indicator of feasts but also of travel since the artifacts are found throughout the British Isles.

Researchers analyzed two isotopes from biogenic strontium, an alkaline metal produced by animals that offers insight into what they ate, what they drank and where. Researchers compared the strontium markers to isotopes that associated with specific climates, coastal proximity, and diet.

Similar techniques are being used to analyze cremated human remains found at stone sites.

All of the pigs sampled seem to have had vegetarian diets, except one which surprisingly suggested it was “raised on animal protein, potentially waste products from dairy processing.”

Although archaeologists have been studying Stonehenge for as long as their discipline has existed, countless questions remain. While this study sheds light on where pigs came from, researchers continue to wonder how the pigs were transported because “driving pigs overland would have represented a formidable challenge.”

The study was funded by the British Academy and the NERC Isotope Geosciences Facility Steering Committee.

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