The remains of prehistoric monuments still characterize the modern British landscape. About 4,500 years ago, people at these sites or in the surrounding communities gathered for annual winter festivals, with pork being the main theme on the menu. The chemical analysis of pork bones left after festivities at four large Henge sites in southern Britain shows a surprisingly wide network of Neolithic voyages.
This little piglet went to Stonehenge …
Mount Pleasant Henge is a stone located about 70 km southwest of Stonehenge, near the coast of the English Channel. West Kennet Palisaded Enclosures is a set of circular trenches and palisades near the famous Avebury Stone Circle, about 39 km north of Stonehenge. Marden Henge between Avebury and Stonehenge is a 1
"Stonehenge is for the dead, Durrington Walls for the living: the site of the builders of Stonehenge and the sites of Stonehenge's festivals," archeologist Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University told Ars Technica. Archaeologists have found in all four places the remains of the old celebrations: broken ceramics, discarded stone tools and the bones of slaughtered pigs. These 4,500-year-old remains suggest that these sites were hubs that formed a Neolithic social network connecting remote communities from Scotland to Wales.
Isotopes of various chemical elements stored in the bones and teeth of an animal may reveal something about the types of food it ate, the soil in which it had grown, and the origins of the water it drank , For example, the ratio of strontium-87 to strontium-86 in a bone sample may inform you about local geology. Oxygen-isotope ratios indicate information about precipitation patterns, and the percentage of the sulfur-34 isotope tends to be higher near the coast.
If the pigs came mostly from the area at one location, you would expect the isotope ratios to be quite similar in their bones. For example, pigs bred on the Wessex Cretaceous around Avebury and Stonehenge should have a ratio of strontium-87 to strontium-86 between 0.7077 and 0.7087. Pigs grown near the three domestic Henges should have sulfur isotope ratios of less than 0.14.
Bringing bacon home
At each isotope ratio, however, the researchers examined each group – carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, strontium, and sulfur in pigs showed a surprising range of variation. Some of the pigs in Durrington Walls, 56 km from the nearest coast, had sulfur isotope ratios indicating that they were closer to the sea. Even in West Kennet, 74 km inland, nine pigs (more than half of the total) appeared to have come from a coastal area. Madgwick and his colleagues found strontium isotope ratios that represented every major geological area in the UK, and oxygen and carbon isotope ratios were also found throughout the map, suggesting that the pigs that lived on the four Locations landed, had been raised in different landscapes.
These vast areas indicated that pigs for the big festivals came from different areas, each with different soils, different collection plants, and different patterns of precipitation. Many of the pigs may be more than 50 km away to reach their last resting places. Since pigs do not tend to independently drive overland, the results suggest that people from all over Britain were traveling to festivals at these Henge locations. And that means that Neolithic Britain may have been much more interconnected than archaeologists recognized.
From Scotland to Wales
The traceability of individual pigs to their source pastures is difficult, partly because the ratios of most isotopes across the UK play a role. It has not yet been mapped with a sufficiently high resolution, and several areas could be similar Have isotopic signatures.
"Isotope data is generally most useful for eliminating potential areas of origin rather than locating it," wrote Madgwick and colleagues. However, some examples stand out and highlight how people and livestock from far away corners of Britain came together for winter festivals (for different definitions of "participation").
Some pigs have surprisingly high levels of strontium-87; two from West Kennet and one from Marden coincide with small pockets of West England and South and West Wales – an area previously associated with Stonehenge as the source of bluestones and the possible homeland of some of the people buried in the memorial. The strontium ratios of five other pigs fall within a range that suggests that they were probably from Scotland, the extreme north end of the island.
It was apparent for a while that sites like Stonehenge, Avebury and Marden were important to people living in the surrounding area. These results, however, indicate that these sites played a role in the lives of communities across the UK.
Potluck on the Hoof
The results also suggest that it was important for the people of Neolithic Britain to bring pigs to the festival. At that time, pigs were the most common domesticated animals. It would have been very easy, for example, to travel from Plymouth to Avesbury and buy some local pigs for the party. And unlike cattle, pigs are not ready to cross great distances – there's a reason you do not hear anything about Old West pork drives. Ancient people have gone to great lengths to move their pigs for these festivals, and there was no reason to do so, unless it was important to show your contribution from home.
Similar to the Effort When the bluestones were expelled from the Preseli Hills in Wales, the results suggest that the old Britain was more connected than archaeologists had previously thought. Sites like the ones we've studied here have also been considered very valuable, even for people who lived far away and may have visited at most once a year.
"I think these were important socio-political events – pan-British events to unite a diverse population and participate in major monuments and major festivals," Madgwick told Ars Technica.
However, as with many archeological discoveries, this chemical analysis raises more questions than it answers. "I have the what and the where but I really want the like ," said Madgwick. "How did they bring animals (and humans) over such distances to the south, what were the ways and how important were the maritime and river-like movements?"
This will be the focus of future works, along with the monuments in the north of the UK and Ireland attracted people from afar.
Science Advancces 2019. DOI: 10.1126 / sciadv.aau6078; (Via DOIs).