The University of York has combined forces with the University of Sheffield to discover how our ancient ancestors may have eaten nearly 5000 years ago. Teams from both universities have excavated an area of the Durrington Walls in Sailsbury, which once surrounded the world famous Stonehenge monument. The walls, which are dated back to the late-Neolithic period of 8000-800 BC, are thought to be the remains of an ancient settlement which housed the builders of Stonehenge.
When we imagine our ancestors, it is easy to imagine that their lives were hard and most of their life was conducted with a ‘do or die’ kind of philosophy. Excavation and analysis of Durrington Walls, however, has revealed a much more civilised and organised society than is to be expected of people from the late-Neolithic period.
Pottery and animal bones have been analysed and it as been discovered that the settlers used a sophisticated food distribution and sharing pattern across the site. Here are some of the main discoveries:
- Pottery was used in a number of ways. In residential areas the pots were mostly used for cooking meat and other animal products, whereas those found in ceremonial spaces were only used for dairy. This suggests two possibilities; firstly, that dairy was considered a luxury reserved for a select few and secondly that dairy was used in religious and social ceremonies.
- It appeared that the settlers rarely consumed vegetable products, and instead favoured the consumption of pigs. Analysis of animal bones at the University of Sheffield found that many pigs were killed before reaching their natural weight, and that feast-like consumption of meat was common in the autumn and the winter. What’s more, it appeared these festivities were planned. The cooking appeared to mostly consist of roasting and boiling food indoors around fire pits, and outdoor barbecuing (although they probably managed without the reggae-reggae sauce!). Some have suggested that the area was home to a slave-based society, but the type of feasting discovered at the site does not fit with that idea.
- As skeletal remains from all parts of livestock were found, it suggests that they were kept live on the site, or at the very least walked to the site. Isotopic analysis suggests the cattle originated from many different regions around the site, some of which were very far away. Even in a modern society herding cattle like this would be extremely difficult, which provides a very interesting insight into how our ancestors must have worked; in an organised, co-operative and communicative way.
Dr Oliver Craig, lead author of the research paper about the findings and Reader in Archaeological Science at the University of York, was quite surprised by the discoveries:
“Evidence of food-sharing and activity-zoning at Durrington Walls shows a greater degree of culinary organisation than was expected for this period of British prehistory. The inhabitants and many visitors to this site possessed a shared understanding of how foods should be prepared, consumed and disposed. This, together with evidence of feasting, suggests Durrington Walls was a well-organised working community.”
As technology advances, it is hoped that we will learn even more will be discovered about the people who lived at Durrington Walls and the lives they led.