19 October 2017

Stonehenge builders feasted on Scottish pork and beef but couldn’t handle their milk

  • New exhibition at Stonehenge reveals what the monument’s builders ate and cooked
  • New research tells a tale of long-distance travel and spectacular ceremonies
  • ‘Feast! Food at Stonehenge’ opens on Friday 20 October
Feast! at Stonehenge
A new exhibition at Stonehenge will showcase the diet of the prehistoric community who built the ancient monument 4,500 years ago, revealing that our ancestors feasted on pigs and cows transported to the Wiltshire site from as far away as north-east Scotland. Within these feasting ceremonies, milk played an important symbolic role however as the builders of Stonehenge were lactose intolerant, they had to turn the milk into cheese and yoghurt in order to consume it. As the new English Heritage exhibition makes clear, food miles and food intolerances are far from being modern phenomenon.

Highlights from Feast! Food at Stonehenge include the skull of an aurochs, a now extinct species of wild cattle with enormous curved horns; a rare complete bronze cauldron from 700BC, a centerpiece of ceremonial feasts; and a near complete and beautifully decorated Grooved Ware pot used in the preparation of the pork and beef dishes. 

Opening on Friday 20 October, Feast! Food at Stonehenge presents the fascinating research and stories to emerge from the 'Feeding Stonehenge' project which has been exploring the lives of the people who lived at the nearby settlement, Durrington Walls, in the late Neolithic period. The thousands of discarded animal bones and teeth excavated there suggest that Durrington Walls was no typical Neolithic village but a site of extraordinary feasting and ceremony, where great quantities of beef and pork were consumed.

Isotope analysis of hundreds of pig and cattle teeth reveal that our ancestors were bringing some of these animals from as far as 500 miles away, suggesting that Stonehenge was known right across Britain and that people travelled far to help build the monument – and to take part in the midwinter feasts.

The exhibition also includes pottery found at Durrington Walls, analysis of which shows that our ancestors used larger Grooved Ware pots to cook meat stews and smaller vessels for processing dairy products. Those pots which held dairy products were concentrated at a timber ceremonial circle at Durrington Walls, suggesting that milk played an important and symbolic role. Our lactose-intolerant Neolithic ancestors had to turn it into low-lactose products such as yogurt or cheese in order to consume it.

Susan Greaney, English Heritage historian, said: “Our exhibition explores the important role feasts and food played at Stonehenge. Raising the ancient stones was an incredible feat but so too was feeding the army of builders – our exhibition reveals just how this was done.”

Developed by English Heritage in partnership with the Feeding Stonehenge project team from the Universities of York, Cardiff, Sheffield and UCL, this exhibition will allow visitors to explore and understand the diet and lifestyle of the people who built and used Stonehenge like never before. The archaeological science presented in Feast! unlocks culinary clues to the past and tells a story of culture, ritual and identity and of food and eating having as much to do with spiritual values in prehistory as they do today.

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