Stonehenge Partiers Came From Afar, Cattle Teeth Show

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
September 12, 2008
Prehistoric cattle remains found close to Stonehenge suggest that partying pilgrims brought the animals from afar, scientists report.

The remains support a theory that the megalithic monument near Salisbury, in southern England, drew ancient peoples from distant regions to celebrate important feast ceremonies. And the feasts, it seems, were movable.

Cattle slaughtered during ritual festivities at the site may have come from as far away as Wales, Jane Evans of the United Kingdom's Natural Environment Research Council announced this week at the British Association Festival of Science in Liverpool.

The discovery is based on 4,500-year-old cattle teeth and bones recently unearthed at a late Stone Age village at Durrington Walls (learn more), less than two miles (three kilometers) from the famous stone circle.

"We are seeing physical evidence of the movement of populations into the [Stonehenge] area for the feasting," said Evans, a member of the research team.

(See Stonehenge photos from National Geographic magazine.)

Probably Wales

Researchers analyzed isotopes, or different varieties, of atoms of the chemical element strontium that was preserved in the animals' tooth enamel. These atoms provide a chemical insight into the geology of the region where the animal lived.

The findings indicate all but one of the cattle studied were raised beyond the chalky, limestone-rich lands that surround Stonehenge and define much of southern England, Evans said.

And teeth samples from two cattle suggest they came from outside England altogether.

"These animals were grazing on soils that developed on relatively old rocks," Evans said, adding that the nearest locations where such rocks are found are Wales and Scotland.

Wales is the likelier of the two, Evans said, because it is closer to Stonehenge and has other archaeological connections. For instance, the Stonehenge monument includes bluestones that were transported from southwest Wales.

Student Groundwork

The new findings, which have yet to be published, are based on the work of Sarah Viner, a graduate student who was working under the supervision of animal archaeologist Umberto Albarella at Britain's University of Sheffield.

The new chemical analysis wasn't precise enough to pinpoint the prehistoric cattle's exact origins, but the results prove that people were taking their livestock to Stonehenge from elsewhere in Britain, Albarella said.

"People were gathering from quite a large region," he said.

Furthermore, cattle bones excavated at the ancient settlement revealed no evidence of newborn calves. "If you have a site where animals were actually reared, you will almost certainly find a number of newborn casualties, but we are not finding that at all," Albarella said.

"So I'm pretty confident this is a consumer site," he added. "It is a site with a special purpose—where people are gathering, probably for feasting and eating an awful lot of meat."

Albarella is one of a large team of experts working on the Stonehenge Riverside Project, a continuing archaeological investigation led by Mike Parker Pearson, also from the University of Sheffield.

Parker Pearson, who has received funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, proposes that Stonehenge and Durrington Walls were intimately connected. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

The archaeologist said the two sites had corresponding standing circles—one of stone, and one of timber—that symbolized the realms of the living and the dead to ancestor-worshipping ancient Britons.

(Related story: "Stonehenge Was Cemetery First and Foremost, Study Says" [May 29, 2008])

Pagan Partying

The hundreds of prehistoric dwellings recently discovered at Durrington are thought to represent a seasonal village that accommodated pagan pilgrims who came to celebrate the winter and summer solstices.

Prehistoric garbage dumps, or middens, were filled with evidence of Stone Age partying, such as pig and cattle bones and broken pottery.

Further study of livestock remains may support a new idea that pilgrims from different regions had their own quarters within the village.

It appears that the types of pottery differ in different areas of the site, based on fragments studied so far, Albarella said.

"It's a hypothesis which needs to be tested," he added. "We may be able to associate cattle [remains] coming from different areas of the site with, perhaps, different regions of origin."

Stonehenge researchers have turned to livestock as a proxy for studying the movement of people because few human teeth have been found in the area.

Human remains unearthed at the monument itself consist of cremation burials, and during cremation, teeth tend to explode, Albarella observed.

"We do need teeth, because it's the enamel in the teeth that preserve the [isotope] signal," said team member Evans.

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