Bring Your Own Pig: Prehistoric People Converged for Feasts at Stonehenge From All Over Britain

Fresh findings shed light on who came to Stonehenge and why, but archaeologists are now baffled by a new mystery: How visitors from as far away as Scotland transported notoriously slow animals across hundreds of kilometers

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Revelers gather at Stonehenge to celebrate the Summer Solstice in 2015 - sans swines.
Revelers gather at Stonehenge to celebrate the Summer Solstice in 2015 - sans swines.Credit: Tim Ireland/AP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

They came to Stonehenge from far and wide, from Scotland and Wales, from northern England, in fact from all over the island. Pigs, that is. Presumably they were brought by their owners, who then ate them there in great communal feasts.

Stonehenge, the site of grand feasts 5,000 years ago.Credit: Cody Logan

We still don’t know exactly why people gathered at Stonehenge, or at Avebury, another Neolithic site in southern England. Either way, most pigs consumed at these places weren't of local origin, archaeologists led by Dr. Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University have determined through advanced isotopic analysis. They've explained it all in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

The people at Stonehenge cremated their dead, so elucidating their origins from bone analysis is extremely challenging, though efforts are being made. Their pigs, on the other hand, weren’t cremated, just cooked. So the archaeologists could analyze bones from 131 pigs dating between 4,400 and 4,800 years ago, unearthed at four Late Neolithic sites: Durrington Walls, Marden, Mount Pleasant and West Kennet Palisade Enclosures, near Stonehenge and Avebury.

Pigs from the same place would have similar isotope values — chemical signals from the food and water that animals ingested. But the archaeologists found “great diversity” in isotope values from the pig remains at each site, meaning the pigs didn’t come from the same place. In fact, some of the swine had evidently traveled for hundreds of miles.

The henge at Avebury, Wiltshire, where modern homes were built around a prehistoric gathering place.Credit: Blake Patterson from Alexandria, VA

Of course, pigs don’t travel well (“poorly suited to movement over distance,” as the archaeologists put it). Theoretically, perhaps the people didn’t travel with their pigs, they traveled with preserved pork.

But that wouldn’t explain the prevalence of skulls and extremities from “foreign” pigs, which would have been removed before the carcasses were cured, not lugged for hundreds of miles, says the team, which included scientists from the British Geological Survey, the University of Sheffield and University College London.

The so-called Devil's Chair stone at the Great Circle of AveburyCredit: Jim Champion

The pigs could not have been strapped somehow to horses to do the walking for them, because domestic horses weren’t present in Britain at this time. (Horses are believed to have been domesticated by the Botai people in central Asia around 5,500 years ago.)

Madgwick says he and his colleagues have no idea how the pigs made the trip. “I talked with pig farmers around the region who have different types of pigs. They are tremendously difficult animals to move,” he told Haaretz. “In Sardinia there are ethnographic examples of moving pigs 40 or 50 kilometers [31 miles], but pig farmers in Britain don’t want to have to move them 200 meters.”

A pig named Yossi at the Freedom Farm refuge for disabled animals in Moshav Olesh, Israel: He isn't going anywhere.Credit: \ NIR ELIAS/ REUTERS

Adding to the enigma, he notes that if the pigs were somehow provoked into cross-country trekking over land, they’d get very lean. “They would have no meat left,” he says. “I think they made a slow journey, stopping to fatten the pig as they went along.”

Or - the bottom line is that Madgwick suspects the pigs were transported by boat, traveling down the River Avon for instance, which could bring them within kilometers of the feasting grounds serving Stonehenge and Avebury.

“Whichever way they went, it was a massive undertaking,” he adds.

Cremated remains from about 5,000 years ago, placed in one of the Aubrey Holes (one of the 56 chalk pits arranged in a ring at Stonehenge)Credit: TobyEditor

(Speaking of massive undertakings and pig transportation, centuries after Stonehenge and the great pork feasts, Philistines sailed 3,000 years ago from the Aegean to the coast of today’s Israel with their own pigs on board.)

Back in England, the River Avon is thought to be the main route by which people came to Stonehenge. And maybe some cows did too. Agriculture and animal domestication had come belatedly to the British Isles, about 6,000 years ago. This was thousands of years after it developed in the Levant and Mesopotamia, and separate studies have indicated that the (fewer) beef bones found at the henges’ feast sites also originated from afar.

Moving beyond the question of how, we can now wonder why.

BYOP parties

The so-called Barber's Stone at AveburyCredit: Jim Champion

Reaching Stonehenge or Avebury from remote parts of England on foot might have taken weeks or months, let alone with slow-moving pigs. River travel would likely have made the trips faster, but in any case it’s unlikely that whole families would spare the time to come en masse to Stonehenge.

If a pilgrimage it was, perhaps men or women up to helping build the monuments would go down periodically. “We must not think about this in modern economic terms,” Madgwick says.

Okay, let’s not. But why would prehistoric Britons undertake the massive inconvenience of crossing country, goosing recalcitrant short-legged pigs alongside them, rather than buy the beasts locally?

We might assume that pigs could have been bought from local villages, or traded. “Humans are ever entrepreneurial,” Madgwick says. “I can’t help but think that if hundreds or thousands of people were converging on monumental sites every year, some entrepreneurs would make it their business to have excess pigs to sell or trade.” And that may well have happened.

The rub is that large-scale animal husbandry hadn’t developed yet, certainly not in prehistoric England though maybe elsewhere in Europe or the Levant. Demand when peoples gathered at Stonehenge from all over Britain would have been too great; the locals simply couldn’t have provided enough, Madgwick says: “Scots couldn’t come safe in the knowledge that they could get a pig locally.”

Credit: Kacper Pempel/REUTERS

And that in turn suggests that prescribed contributions were required for participation at the great Stonehenge banquet. Bring your own pig may have been a rule.

The age of the pig

Which leads to another point. The main domestic animals in prehistoric Britain were the cow and sheep, with pigs a distant third, Madgwick notes. (In contrast, in the Middle East, prehistoric peoples tended toward the hardy goat, which was all but unknown in the British Isles.)

Yet analysis of bone remains at the feasting sites by the University of Sheffield's Umberto Albarella shows that the main course was pig. For all the modern obsession with bacon, that is an anomaly in British history and prehistory.

“This is the only period in British prehistory where pigs were the No. 1 species,” Madgwick says. “In other periods, from when farming emerged, the species were beef and lamb or mutton first …. This is very much the pig age.”

Illustration of what the stone circles at Avebury looked like thousands of years agoCredit: ללא קרדיט

Why would the pig suddenly be ascendant, albeit to its sorrow? “I think because feasting is such an important part of society at the time,” Madgwick answers. “They held huge formal feasts, and you can raise lots of meat fast with a pig.”

Cows and sheep have one baby at a time, rarely more, he explains. Pigs can have huge litters. The piglets grow and gain weight faster than other domestic animals, and are omnivorous.

Also, people don’t drink pig milk. “If they brought their sheep and cattle, slaughtered and ate them and went home, they would have no animals at home,” Madgwick says. So if they relied on dairy and milk (which we don’t know), they could no longer survive. They would be likelier to keep the cattle and sheep at home and take the pigs, which produce nothing but their own sweet selves, and manure of course.

Happy family that proliferates fast: Pigs have big littersCredit: Ingimage

The Neolithic Brexit

Couldn’t it be, however, that prehistoric Britons came whenever it suited them? Why conclude that they held great pan-British feasts in some early show of unity? And how did they coordinate without smartphones?

Stonehenge.Credit: TobyEditor

Multiple signs indicate that the feasts were a winter thing, when farming folk would have had more time on their hands. The pigs’ teeth show they had been culled when they were 9 months old, so if they were born in the spring, as pigs are, they were killed in the winter. Also, meat keeps better in cold weather, and the communities wouldn’t have had to invest in feeding the pig over the winter, when fodder is low.

Durrington Walls, one of the sites where the pig remains were excavated, seems to have only been in use for about 50 years but had a vast volume of material: tens of thousands of animal bones, Madgwick says. That argues for intense occupation in what would have been the biggest known settlement in Neolithic Europe. “Probably they would spend all day building Stonehenge and all night feasting on pork,” he suggests.

As for coordinating the party, news of the Stonehenge pig rave would have spread by word of mouth over the centuries. The site was very long-lived; massive bluestones comprising part of the mysterious circles were placed there about 400 years before the pig feasts, Madgwick notes. (The bluestones that weigh about one ton apiece also came from afar, Wales actually, and are also thought like the pigs to have been transported by river.)

Bluestone standing stones didn't have to be carved, they could be severed from the outcrop using crude stone wedgesCredit: Tony Holkham

The million-dollar mystery is why people would converge from all over the isles, walking for weeks with pigs on leashes (maybe) or sailing or however, to convene at Stonehenge. That isn’t in the scope of the pig study but Madgwick was willing to go there.

He speculates that the times were characterized by a greater degree of social stratification. Group leaders, chiefs of some kind, were able to mobilize labor from a much wider geographic area than previously possible, which is how they came to build the massive monument.

And why would they do that? The simplest explanation is to make their mark, or as Madgwick puts it – “to anchor their greatness in the landscape in a very visible way.”

The age of Stonehenge and Avebury was special not only for the predilection for pork, but for isolation as well. Greatness may well have been in the eye of the self-beholder.

“This is a time of a very clear Neolithic Brexit. Before that, they had great contact with the Continent” – Europe, and it was the same in the Bronze Age,” Madgwick says. “In this one period, Britain looked inward on itself.”

Pottery evidence supports the theory of Neolithic isolation: The British pottery of the time has not been found in Continental Europe, and European pottery of the time has not been found in Britain. The Neolithic people were mobile, even very much so, but entirely within Britain and Ireland, Madgwick notes. They didn’t go to the Continent and the Continent didn’t come to them. We may know history, but it may repeat itself after all.

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