When ancient Britons went for a pig roast, they went big.
In a paper published today in , a team of Cardiff University researchers outlined the results of a study of pig bones left near Stonehenge and other similar formations that led them to an important discovery: It seems these late Stone Age pig roasts were big enough to draw people from across the British mainland.
The proof was in the isotopes. The researchers looked at stronium, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and sulfur isotopes from 131 examples of pig remains found at four sites near Stonehenge. They found the pigs came from all over Britain. Given that pigs aren't exactly easy to herd, this also means that there probably was some ritual aspect to the pig feasts, important enough to drive early Welsh and Scottish settlers back to the south of modern-day England.
"They are an absolute gold mine in terms of where the people came from," lead author Richard Madgwick of Cardiff says of the pig bones, which were seemingly "unspectacular" on the outside, according to Madgwick. "They provide a perfect proxy for humans and where humans are moving."
Madgwick says that the event probably happened just after the fall harvest, and was a "massive cultural event." Some of the pigs were embedded with flint as if shot by bows and arrows, meaning they "may have been shot in some kind of pre-feasting ritual," he says. These yearly mid-winter feasts were "the way they interacted with each other, and this is the time when they came and worked and played together."
The study also points to the importance of centers outside of Stonehenge, showing they may have had as much as an importance in ancient British life. In addition, Madgwick says, Stonehenge itself may have been overemphasized in importance. Madgwick would like to examine sites from across Britain to see if they, too, had a similar cultural import outside of southern England. They may point to a greater-than-believed centralization of power among certain leaders able to mobilize labor for feasts and formation building.
The actual purposes of the feast may be hard to disentangle, at least beyond the potential camaraderie. One thing it does prove, though, is that we've had pork belly and ribs on the menu for a long, long time—and people would bring their prized pig from across the country as part of the pan-British ancient barbecue feast.