Prehistoric Britons Brought Pigs From As Far As Scotland For Stonehenge Feasts
New findings suggest ancient people in the late Neolithic period travelled hundreds of kilometers across Britain’s wild landscapes to attend great feasts and festivals at stone circles in Wiltshire and Dorset in the south of England. And even though the animal would have been available locally, many chose to bring their own pigs!
A scientific paper published in Science Advances on Wednesday evening details the piggly-focused research project led by Dr Richard Madgwick of the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University. His new findings demonstrate how in the late Neolithic (2,800 to 2,400 years BC) prehistoric people transported pigs from as far afield as the north-east of Scotland and Ireland to Durrington Walls , an archaeological site believed to have housed the builders of the famous Stonehenge.
Pigs were moved huge distances, even from Scotland to Stonehenge in the South of England. (Image: elecstasy / Adobe Stock)
An article in The Guardian explains that “pig teeth and bones found at Marden and West Kennet, both in Wiltshire, and Mount Pleasant in Dorset were analyzed suggesting that many were brought from north-east England, west Wales and the south-west of Britain.” Marden Henge is located to the north of Stonehenge and is much more extensive archaeological site while West Kennet Palisade Enclosures is part of the Avebury complex . Mount Pleasant is a henge enclosure seven miles from the coast in Dorset and all sites were active in the mid-third millennium BC.
Part of the South Inner Circle of Avebury in Wiltshire, England. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Implications of Traveling Pigs
Dr Madgwick’s paper demonstrates “a scale of movement and level of social complexity not previously appreciated.” It is thought that the feasts being attended were among the first “united cultural events of our island [Britain]” and attracted tribal representatives in parties from the furthest parts of the island, who brought with them different “live” food stuffs.
Using techniques such as isotope analysis, the chemical signals left in food and water consumed by animals were used to determine where the pigs were raised. According to Dr Madgwick, among the most startling of the finds is the “effort” made by the participants in contributing pigs to the feast that they had raised themselves and transporting them. This, would have required “a monumental effort.”
Researchers analyzed collagen collected from the remains of Neolithic pigs for an isotope analysis. (Image: Cardiff University)
The new paper explains that while there is no evidence for contact between Britain and the continent at that stage in history, a distinctive type of pottery called ‘grooved ware’ found in Britain and Ireland suggests there were connections across the Irish Sea and with the north of Scotland. The study also suggests that these prehistoric feasts were grand affairs saying: “These events were unrivalled in earlier periods and rarely paralleled even after the Roman invasion.”
Are pigs good proxies?
Christophe Snoeck is a researcher in the Analytical, Environmental & Geo-Chemistry unit at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, in Belgium, who published a paper in 2018 with his team of research colleagues. Their work showed that some of “the cremated people found buried at Stonehenge weren't locals, but had come from Wales , the origin of some of Stonehenge's megaliths.” The paper suggested that Neolithic People “moved around the landscape” and were not restricted to Stonehenge and the south of England" Snoeck told Live Science .
Pigs are not the easiest animal to move large distances. ( levo / Adobe Stock)
A Live Science article quotes Madgwick saying “Unquestionably, the biggest risk in this study was, 'Are pigs a good proxy?.. Ask any pig farmer and they will tell you that even moving a pig a couple hundred yards is a challenge.” You might justifiably be asking yourself by now, “but surely they would have transported only the meat from slaughtered pigs?”
But no, if people were merely transporting slaughtered pig meat, why then would they have transported their skulls? Moreover, with no salt production in this era the meat would most probably have spoiled over the course of the journey and the paper adds:
“This is very unlikely as skulls and extremities are prevalent and these would be removed before preservation. Additionally, no evidence has been found for large-scale organized husbandry and preservation in Neolithic Britain.”
Madgwick believes it is more likely that these pigs were “coaxed to move, and then fattened up along the way before reaching the ultimate henge destination.”
In conclusion, transporting pigs, whether slaughtered or walking, over hundreds of kilometers would have required using maritime and riverine transportation linking the network of sites together.
Top image: Stonehenge was one of the feasting destinations of the pigs. Source: Gooseman / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie