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The Pig Fat Sleds and ‘Flying’ Stones of Stonehenge

The Pig Fat Sleds and ‘Flying’ Stones of Stonehenge

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An innovative professor proposes that Britain’s ancient people moved the massive megaliths used to build the world famous stone circle, Stonehenge, by ‘greasing giant sleds with pig lard’ and sliding the stones across the landscape.

The idea that megalith‐building communities in prehistory used cylindrical, wooden rollers to transport enormous stones across significant distances - the ‘roller hypothesis’ - has been a standard archaeological model of megalithic architecture. However, last July Dr. Barney Harris, a doctoral student of archaeology at University College London, published a research paper titled ‘Roll Me a Great Stone: A Brief Historiography of Megalithic Construction and the Genesis of the Roller Hypothesis’ in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology and said “The likelihood that such devices were actually used to transport megaliths during prehistory remains highly questionable”.

Excavation of a quarry in Wales where Stonehenge's 'bluestones' came from. (University College London)

Excavation of a quarry in Wales where Stonehenge's 'bluestones' came from. ( University College London )

Building on Harris’ skepticism , archaeologist Lisa-Marie Shillito has published a study on July 15 in the  journal Antiquity presenting the results of her re-analysis of ceramic pots that had always been “assumed” to have been used to cook food. The pottery fragments came from Durrington Walls, an ancient site near Stonehenge where its builders lived, and she discovered that many of the pots had been used to collect and store pig fat from spit-roasted beasts, which she thinks is “tantalizing evidence of the greased sled theory”.

Grooved ware pot from Durrington Walls. (Antiquity)

Grooved ware pot from Durrington Walls. ( Antiquity)

Archaeological Paradigm Shifting at Stonehenge

The traditional “roller hypothesis”  appeared during the early 19th century when archaeologists proposed that the Dutch hunebedden were built by placing boulders on rollers fashioned from tree trunks - and soon after rollers appeared in diagrams theorizing about the construction of Stonehenge.

But experimental and ethnographic studies of megalith transport negates the roller idea and has always suggested simpler, better‐attested, and more reliable methods were applied; and according to Dr. Barney Harris “The roller hypothesis is bound up in outmoded, even jingoistic perspectives of megalithic construction and the evolution of technology.”

In 2018, Julie Dunne, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Bristol in the UK, told Live Science that a team of archaeologists found traces “of compounds left behind, including isotopes, or different versions of chemical elements” and about a “third of the pots archaeologists have found were used to cook pork” - but the new study challenges this assertion because the “bones found at the site came from carcasses that hadn’t been cooked in pots,” but were spit-roasted over an open fire.

This and other evidence led Shillito to suggest these ancient pots were never used for cooking food but for collecting and storing lard used in construction slides. This idea was somewhat confirmed by Dr Barney Harris last year when he simulated the "greased sled theory” showing how only 10 people can move "a 1-ton (0.9 metric tons) stone at nearly 1 mph (1.6 km/h)." Harris told Live Science in an email that Shillito's findings “correspond with unpublished observations made during my stone-moving experiment in London.”

Old News to Some

The greased sled theory has been applied to megalithic transportation models in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt because art depicts liquid lubricants being poured on large stone blocks, and in 2001 a Californian software engineer, Maureen Clemmons, suggested massive man-made kites may have lifted heavy blocks off the ground. Taking her idea to Morteza Gharib, a professor at the Californian Institute of Technology, he then lifted a 3.5-ton obelisk using a large sail.

In a October 25, 2001 article in The Independent titled ‘Egyptian kite-flyers 'may have built the pyramids’ Professor Gharib told Technology Editor Charles Arthur “The instant the sail opened into the wind, a huge force was generated and the obelisk was raised to the vertical in a mere 40 seconds” offering an alternative theory as to how Stone Age dwellers in Britain constructed their huge monuments.

Wall painting from Egyptian tomb at Deir el‐Bersha showing transport of statue on a sled. (Public Domain)

While all this must have been great fun, Willeke Wendrich, an associate professor of Egyptology at the University of California in Los Angeles, told reporters: “The evidence for kite-lifting is non-existent” but in this somewhat crazed experiment lay a nugget of future truth - pig fat sleds.

Top Image: Flying stones . Source: victor zastol'skiy / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

Hi, I am not an armchair archeologist. I actually went into the field and erected first a 3.5-ton then a 16-ton obelisk and built three pyramids using wind as the motive force. As part of our field research, we used lard (animal fat) to try to reduce friction. It was an epic failure. Sand and soil stuck to the fat, and actually increased the friction. 

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