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Party Like It's 2,500 B.C.: Feasts At Stonehenge Were Epic Barbecues

Stonehenge at dawn, December 2014, in Wiltshire, England.

If you had traveled to visit Stonehenge around 4,500 years ago, you might have stayed in a village called Durrington Walls, just a couple of miles east of the monument of standing stones. You might have gone to this site in southern England because it was getting close to the winter solstice — and the celebrations at Durrington Walls would have included some pretty incredible feasts.

British researchers studying animal bone remains and pottery fragments at Durrington Walls have reconstructed those prehistoric menus: The two main courses very likely would have been fire-roasted pork and beef stew, the researchers reported this fall in the journal Antiquity.

"The bones on the pig carcasses look like they were spit-roasted," says Lisa-Marie Shillito, an archaeologist at the U.K.'s Newcastle University and one of the study's co-authors. "The cows were more likely to be butchered and prepared in the pots."

Neolithic Britons made pottery that was fired at a low temperature, which left the finished product highly porous. So when they used these pots for cooking or serving food, animal fats soaked in and got trapped. "It's kind of like a sponge," Shillito says. "[We] actually extract all the residues preserved."

Fats from different animals carry slightly different chemical signatures based on the biology of the animal, leaving a kind of atomic fingerprint. So when the researchers analyzed the fats left behind in the potsherds, they found that the pots at Durrington Walls were mostly used to hold beef and some pork.

Since cow bones were recovered sliced open, Shillito says they'd probably been boiled into a rich stock. The pig bones, on the other hand, had scorch marks on their extremities, signaling that they'd been roasted over a fire. For drink or sides, Shillito says, the revelers enjoyed some kind of dairy — perhaps yogurt, milk or cheese.

Shillito says the pots found in the area were all different sizes, including large vessels retrieved from areas of Durrington Walls where large, banquet-hall-style structures once stood. "[There] were some very big, cauldron-sized pots, then some smaller, handheld vessels as well," she says. "It's another line of evidence for the idea that people were feasting [here], and not just [engaging in] small-household food preparations."

The festivities would have been something like a big barbecue that people from all over Britain came to celebrate, says Tim Darvill, an archaeologist at the U.K.'s Bournemouth University and a leading Stonehenge scholar, who was not involved in this study. He points to a previous chemical analysis done on cattle remains from Durrington Walls that found the animals had come from areas all over Great Britain.

"They certainly come from a great distance," Darvill says. "There are some that look like a good old way from the north."

So what made Durrington Walls such a hot destination? At one point, the town was perhaps one of the largest settlements in Neolithic Britain, with as many as 1,000 houses and maybe thousands of people converging in the village. But, for some reason, the town was inhabited only while Stonehenge was under construction.

Stonehenge was built sometime between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago. By the time it was completed, nobody was living or visiting Durrington Walls anymore, researchers say. The people who had dwelled there were probably the builders of Stonehenge, Shillito says. "It's not clear why the site came to end."

Darvill thinks that building Stonehenge was tantamount to using it. "We've got to think of these monuments as very dynamic structures," he says.

"They're constantly remodeling, changing them. That's the important bit," he says, adding, "In a sense, Stonehenge is never quite finished." The festivals celebrating the seasons changing at the winter or summer solstice could have been part of that process of building the monument, Darvill says.

Scientists are still unraveling the mysteries of that construction process. Just this week, a team of archaeologists and geologists reported that the bluestones of Stonehenge's inner circle came from quarries in Pembrokeshire, Wales, nearly 180 miles away from where the monument stands today.

Bringing over a bluestone could have been a celebrated ritual at Durrington Walls, Darvill says. "Those bluestones, they may go and get one every year and bring it over and celebrate it, and then go the next year and bring another one," he says.

And, he thinks, maybe celebrations were going on all the time at Durrington Walls that were connected to Stonehenge. "There's lots of stuff going on — just look at any big ceremonial structure. Marriage vows being exchanged, funerals, good quality stone and flint being passed on," Darvill says.

And then afterward back at the village, some pretty damn good feasts, too.

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