Photograph by Richard Nowitz, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A party with meat was likely on the menu of the ancients who met at the rock sculpture at Stonehenge.
Photograph by Richard Nowitz, Nat Geo Image Collection
The Plate

Who Built Stonehenge? Big-Time Meat-Eaters

Stonehenge’s construction crew came together from across Britain for some epic barbecues, a feat of social organization millennia before mobile phones made it easy for people to connect.

Now, new analysis of the fat-coated pottery left behind at the Durrington Walls settlement near Stonehenge is shedding some light on their culinary practices—and raising questions about what exactly these late Stone Age people were eating.

Durrington Walls was the likely home base for the builders of Stonehenge’s famous inner circle of stones. It was inhabited around the same time that the iconic features were added 4,500 years ago, and man-made avenues connect both sites to the River Avon.

Earlier investigations of the animal bones unearthed at Durrington Walls revealed that people traveled to the site from across Britain for late autumn or early winter feasts—a pilgrimage these people undertook with young, fat pigs and cows in tow. Charred bones on-site and broken pottery are all that remain today of these millennia-old parties.

Mary Malainey, a professor of archaeology and pottery residue expert at Canada’s Brandon University who was not involved in the research, suspects that after the harvest, when farmers had a few months off from working their lands, they ventured to southeast England for shared food—and a shared construction effort. (See Stonehenge facts and photos.)

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A Neolithic village at Durrington Walls. Drawing by Kazuhiko Sano, National Geographic Creative

A group from the University of York and the University of Sheffield has turned to the chemical residues coating broken crockery collected from the site to understand the food culture of the late Neolithic. (Centuries earlier, workers extracting Stonehenge’s bluestones from sites in Wales snacked on roasted chestnuts.)

“It’s really difficult because it’s such a long time ago … By looking at the way foods were manipulated and dealt with and deposited, then we can try and get a closer idea of how people were valuing them,” says Oliver Craig, director of bioarchaeology at the University of York and the study’s lead author. Craig and his colleagues published their results in October in the journal Antiquity.

Before the excavation of the Durrington Walls settlement, archaeologists trying to piece together what daily life was like during Stonehenge’s construction had little luck looking at the monument itself: In the 25th century B.C., Stonehenge wasn’t exactly a homey place. There’s almost zero evidence that anyone cooked or ate there. Instead, there are at least 63 (likely more) burials of cremated human remains.

In stark contrast, Durrington Walls looks like it was a place for the living. There were houses, trash piles and pits, public meeting spaces, and two small timber circles—miniature versions of the nearby monument Woodhenge.

Lisa-Marie Shillito, formerly a research associate in Craig’s lab and now a lecturer of landscape archaeology at Newcastle University, drilled into 300 potsherds found in Durrington Walls, soaking the resulting powder in solvents to extract the fats. She then conducted molecular analyses that told her what animals—and what parts of their bodies—the fats came from.

Shillito’s analysis revealed that larger, cauldron-size pots from domestic spaces usually contained meat. While cow fat and pig fat might be found together in these clay containers, they were almost never combined with dairy. Instead, dairy was usually stored in smaller, hand-size pots in more public and ceremonial spaces on the site.

At the time, most of the population of Great Britain was likely lactose intolerant, a condition where the lactose sugar in milk causes gastrointestinal symptoms. Shillito and Craig suspect that these smaller pots didn’t contain raw milk but instead carried dairy products like yogurt or cheese that contain less lactose because microbes have broken it down.

There are still a lot of open questions. Malainey notes that reconstructions of the pottery’s forms might shed more light on their functions. And the research team doesn’t know why the dairy products were stored differently from the rest of the food and who was eating them.

But Timothy Darvill, a Stonehenge expert and director of archaeology at Bournemouth University in the U.K. who was not involved in this research, says that because of this research, people can begin to fathom what life at Stonehenge might have been like.

“As far as I’m aware, this is one of the biggest studies of its kind that’s been done,” Darvill says. “And that really starts to open things up and it starts to address the kind of questions which people always ask when they go to Stonehenge: Where do they live? What do they eat? How does it all work? And for the first time we can start to give a few answers that are more than guesswork.”

“The really interesting thing is what this tells you about the organization of Neolithic society, the fact that you had all of these hundreds of people coming together from across the British Isles,” Shillito adds. “It must have required quite a lot of social organization … [T]he actual feasting was a means of bonding with these huge groups of people.”

And nothing says bonding like a massive barbecue.

Rachel A. Becker is a science writer based in Sacramento, California. Follow her on Twitter.