The Ancients Traveled Hundreds Of Miles For Pagan Feasts

Ancient people traveled hundreds of miles from all corners of Britain to take part in feasts at or near great stone circles in the south of England, new research suggests.

The study argues that in the late Neolithic period people transported pigs they had raised locally, possibly by sea or river, to sites in Wiltshire and Dorset.

It paints a picture of a very mobile society with people from across Britain not only knowing about sites in the south of England but being prepared to bring their livestock on arduous journeys to take part in festivals.

An exhibition called Feast!, which opened at Stonehenge two years ago, highlighted how analysis of pig teeth and jaw bones prehistoric people brought animals to nearby Durrington Walls from as far afield as the north-east of Scotland. Durrington Walls was only settled for between 50 and 100 years but it is believed to have housed the temple’s builders and the first visitors after the famous sarsen stones in Wiltshire were put in place.

The researchers also analyzed pig teeth and bones found at Marden and West Kennet, both in Wiltshire, and Mount Pleasant in Dorset. Their work suggests that live animals were being brought from north-east England, west Wales and the south-west of Britain.

Marden Henge, near Devizes, is north of Stonehenge and a larger site than the much more famous circle. West Kennet Palisade Enclosures is part of the Avebury complex. Mount Pleasant is a henge enclosure seven miles from the coast in Dorset and was a focus of activity in the mid-third millennium BCE

Dr. Madgwick, of the School of History, Archaeology, and Religion, said: “This study demonstrates a scale of movement and level of social complexity not previously appreciated.”

“These gatherings could be seen as the first united cultural events of our island, with people from all corners of Britain descending on the areas around Stonehenge to feast on food that had been specially reared and transported from their homes.”

Using isotope analysis, which identifies chemical signals from the food and water that animals have consumed, the researchers were able to determine geographical areas where the pigs were raised.

Dr. Madgwick said: “Arguably the most startling finding is the efforts that participants invested in contributing pigs that they themselves had raised. Procuring them in the vicinity of the feasting sites would have been relatively easy.

“Pigs are not nearly as well-suited to movement over distance as cattle and transporting them, either slaughtered or on the hoof, over hundreds or even tens of kilometers, would have required a monumental effort.

“This suggests that prescribed contributions were required and that rules dictated that offered pigs must be raised by the feasting participants, accompanying them on their journey, rather than being acquired locally.”

The paper suggests the feasts were vast. “These events were unrivaled in earlier periods and rarely paralleled even after the Roman invasion,” it says.

It explains that there is no evidence for contact between Britain and the continent at this stage. A distinctive type of pottery called grooved ware from the era found in Britain and Ireland suggests there were connections across the Irish Sea.

The ideal way of proving connectivity would be to analyze human remains but these are scarce and most are cremated, making them unsuitable for most biomolecular study.

It has not been possible to completely discount the idea that preserved pork may have been transported by specialist producers rather than pigs being brought by those taking part in feasts, the paper says.

The paper points out that it is not as easy to move pigs as cattle. It says: “Pigs are not nearly as well suited to movement over distance as bovids, and transporting them, either slaughtered or on the hoof, over hundreds or even tens of kilometers would have required a monumental effort. This suggests that prescribed contributions were required and that rules dictated that offered pigs must be raised by the feasting participants, accompanying them on their journey, rather than being acquired locally. It is likely that maritime and riverine transport played an important role in these networks.”

The study is published in Science Advances.

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