Feasting and Mobility at Stonehenge

Dr Richard Madgwick, Senior Lecturer
Cardiff University

Monumental complexes such as Stonehenge and Avebury represent some of the most famous prehistoric archaeological sites in the world. They often comprise sites of different character and function, with the Stonehenge complex having the stone circle of Stonehenge, a focus for funerary ritual, the wooden circle of Woodhenge and the henge enclosure of Durrington Walls, a centre for feasting and settlement.  

These monumental complexes have been a focus for archaeological and antiquarian research for centuries. The origins of the people who engaged in ceremonies at (and very likely built) Stonehenge and other great Late Neolithic (c. 2800-2400BC) monumental complexes represents a long-standing enigma in research on British prehistory. Isotope analysis provides a suite of methods for identifying non-local individuals and exploring origins through sampling bone and teeth. However, human remains at these sites are almost all cremated and therefore unsuitable for some forms of isotope analysis. Consequently, other proxies for human movement must be utilised. 

Sample of pig mandible from Durrington Walls

This study uses the bones and teeth of pigs, the prime feasting animal at these complexes. Tens of thousands have been recovered from Durrington Walls, providing a vital resource for reconstructing prehistoric lifeways. These are domestic pigs and therefore must have been brought by humans, thus potentially providing a good proxy for human movement. However, pigs are not considered well-suited to movement over distance and are commonplace in Late Neolithic Britain. Therefore, even if people came from far and wide, they might procure a pig in the vicinity of the henges to contribute to the feast, rather than going to the effort of bringing one that they themselves had raised. Pigs may therefore provide a weak proxy for human movement.    

The research analyses the largest five-isotope system faunal dataset yet published in archaeology. A total of 131 animals were analysed from four Late Neolithic complexes in Wessex: Durrington Walls, West Kennet Palisade Enclosures, Mount Pleasant and Marden. Each isotope system provides different information about the origins of the animals. Strontium (87Sr/86Sr) provides a geological signal, oxygen (d18O) a climatic signal and sulphur (d34S) an indication of coastal proximity. Carbon (d13C) and nitrogen (d15N) isotope analysis provides dietary information and represents an important baseline from which to interpret the other proxies. The combination of these isotope systems means that non-local animals can be identified with greater confidence and likely origins can in some instances be posited.  

Results were exceptionally wide-ranging in all of the provenancing isotope proxies. They are considered in the context of British origins, as there is no evidence for contact with continental Europe at this time. The strontium values encompassed the vast majority of biosphere variation that can be found in Britain from the youngest to oldest lithological zones. Oxygen values were suggestive of origins from the coastal west to the highland east and sulphur results indicated many animals were raised near the coast, with others having inland origins. No other British site of any period provides data as wide-ranging as for these Late Neolithic sites. On the basis of current mapping data, it is not possible to define origins with confidence, even when using multi-isotope proxies. Equifinality remains a hurdle to interpretation, as some areas may not be distinguishable. However, the scale of variation in all provenancing proxies provides convincing evidence for wide-ranging origins, and origins as far afield as Scotland cannot be discounted. It is not only the famous megalithic centres like Stonehenge that were major foci. All four sites show long-distance connectivity, and there is no indication that they served different networks; all drew people and animals from across Britain for this feasting events. 

These findings have major ramifications for how we understand Late Neolithic Britain. The monumental complexes of Wessex were not just power bases in the heartland of regional groups, at which feasting events acted to unify a disparate, yet broadly local populace, nor were they sites of reciprocal feasting, where alliances between neighbouring groups were forged and consolidated. These centres were lynchpins for a much greater scale of connectivity, involving disparate groups from across Britain. Results also suggest 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 volume and scale of movement has not previously evidenced and it can be argued that the Late Neolithic was the first phase of pan-British connectivity. These long-distance networks were not only sustained by the movement of people but also of livestock. These results provide clear evidence for a great volume and scale of intercommunity mobility in Late Neolithic Britain, demonstrating a level of interaction and social complexity not previously appreciated. 

Original article: 

Madgwick R, Lamb A, Sloane H, Nederbragt A, Viner S, Albarella U, Parker Pearson M, Evans J.  2019. Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates long distance movement of people and animals for feasts in the Stonehenge landscape. Science Advances 5, eaau6078. 

Pits, pottery and prehistoric people in southern Romania

Dr Steve Mills, Senior Lecturer
Cardiff University

Cardiff University’s research, over a 20-year period, into the Neolithic (6000-3600 BC) settlement in Romania has stimulated new interpretations, artwork, workshops and museum exhibitions and created new audiences for this important period in the human past. Archaeological research, focussed on the village of Măgura, Romania, has transformed the understanding of the environmental and social contexts of Europe’s first farmers and resulted in participation in a major EU-funded project that combined archaeology and art as a medium for engaging public interest in their past. The project involved invited artists visiting Romania and producing original pieces for exhibition in the regional museum, and it enhanced local education practice through a series of workshops in the village school. The research programme also provided material for the development of a new archaeological exhibition at the museum, creating an opportunity to present the prehistoric heritage of Măgura to the local community and a heritage resource to encourage cultural tourism.  A new phase of research around the village of Poiana, in the Danube Valley, Romania, aims to better understand the environmental and landscape context during the Mesolithic period leading up to the appearance of the first farmers. We hope the new research at Poiana will contribute to further understanding the presence and lifeways of Mesolithic and Neolithic communities in the region and the river environments they inhabited. 

Southern Romania Archaeological Project (SRAP)

The Neolithic in Romania (6000-3600 BC) was a dynamic period in prehistory when people introduced domestic species of plant (wheat and barley) and animals (sheep, goat, cattle and pig) into Europe. These early farmers and herders systematically modified the landscape by constructing pit dwellings, and then living in villages densely packed with upstanding rectangular houses; they made a wide range of stone tools and ceramic pottery and figurines. Although all phases of the Neolithic in Romania have deep histories of research the main interest has been the developed late Neolithic, monumental, settlement mounds and cemeteries. The critical earliest phases of the Neolithic elsewhere in Romania have been under-researched. Cardiff University’s research at Măgura–Buduiasca, the Southern Romania Archaeological Project (SRAP 1998-2005), sought to address this imbalance by examining the first appearance of pottery, semi-sedentism and the domestication of plants and animals. SRAP was coordinated by Douglass Bailey (Cardiff University 1993 – 2008) and Steve Mills (Cardiff University 2003 – current) in partnership with the Teleorman County Museum, Alexandria, Romania, (Dr P. Mirea) and the Romanian National Historical Museum, Bucureşti (Dr. R. Andreescu). 

Southern Romania Archaeological Project (SRAP)

SRAP studied prehistoric land-use, settlement patterns and river dynamics around Măgura village, in the Teleorman River Valley southern Romania. Within this programme of research SRAP identified, dated and excavated the previously unknown early Neolithic (6000-5000 BC) site of Măgura-Buduiasca. Research also established a prehistoric fluvial chronology critical for understanding the interplay between changing dynamics of the Teleorman River and the formation and preservation of the archaeological record. This research has helped re-energise studies of the environmental and social contexts surrounding the appearance and development of the earliest farming communities in southern Romania contributing to the broader study of the transition from hunting and gathering to farming within Europe. 

To better understand the location, form and prehistoric use of early Neolithic sites, the project methodology used intensive field walking, soil studies, plant and pollen analysis, excavation, archaeological survey, radiocarbon dating, pottery analyses, and human and animal bone analyses. In 2002 SRAP was awarded the Romanian Ministry of Culture’s “Radulescu Prize” for outstanding contribution to Romanian Prehistoric Archaeology. 

Steve Mills doing some fieldwork in Poiana, 2019

SRAP’s research on changing river dynamics has produced the best dated sequence in the Lower Danube Basin. This work provides a model for the likely influence of river processes and hydrological variability on the behaviour and resource choices of prehistoric communities and the effects of river erosion, flooding and sedimentation on the preservation and visibility of the archaeological record within river valleys. Furthermore, it contributes to the broader, increasingly precise, knowledge of European and global patterns of (rapid) climate change, flooding events, erosion and alluviation. 

Based on its research reputation, SRAP was invited to participate (2008-2011) in an EU-funded arts engagement project. The resulting Măgura Past & Present project used SRAP’s research, data and archaeological finds on the early Neolithic and on river dynamics as the inspiration and resource base. The project’s participants (64 from Măgura, 8 from the local museum, 51 from Romania, 27 from Europe) conducted a series of individual and group activities in and around Măgura and in the county museum to observe, document and (re)create the (pre)history of the village. Nine artists (from Romania, Europe and the USA) were invited to work in residence in Măgura and the museum and to coordinate workshops at the village school. These residencies encouraged the artists to explore and develop new relationships between art, archaeology, heritage and education. 

Art and archaeology workshops (including pottery making, replicating prehistoric art, representing river environments) at the village school in 2010 introduced school children, teachers and parents to SRAP research on early farmers and to concepts of local heritage and landscape preservation and presentation. The workshops enhanced the educational remit of the school by providing access to new resources and expertise and inspired students and teachers to learn more about their local heritage. Outputs from the workshops provided material for an exhibition at the museum and a local history exhibition at the school enabling the participants to actively contribute to the study and presentation of their local heritage. 

SRAP research and excavated material provided the foundation for designing and building a new permanent early Neolithic exhibition and multimedia learning environment in the museum. This opened in 2011 and is the museum’s first permanent archaeological exhibition enhancing its visitor attraction and its educational potential. A temporary exhibition of outputs from the workshops and art residencies opened between November 2010 and June 2011. Combined with media coverage, this helped raise awareness of the artists’ work and of Măgura’s heritage to local and visiting audiences and in promoting and enhancing the museum’s programme of engagement with local communities. 

SRAP research in the Teleorman River valley has demonstrated the benefit of an alluvial archaeology approach for better understanding the relationships between fluvial dynamics, sedimentation and the identification and preservation of the archaeological record. Building on this, a new phase of research (2013-present) around Poiana has identified surface lithic scatters that contain a wide range of worked pieces including cores, flakes, blade fragments and importantly a number of ‘bullet’ cores. The ‘bullet’ cores may indicate a Mesolithic presence in this area of the Danube Valley. These lithic scatters have the potential to provide important new evidence to help further our understanding of human-river interactions in the region during the early to mid-Holocene (9500-5500 BC) immediately before and during the transformation from hunter-gatherers to Neolithic herding and farming communities at around 6000 BC. 

First permanent Archaeological exhibit – based on evidence from SRAP!

SRAP funded by The British Academy, The Society of Antiquaries of London, Cardiff University, The Romanian Ministry of Culture, Teleorman County Council and the National Historical Museum of Romania. 

Măgura Past & Present funded by Art-Landscape Transformations Project, Culture Programme 2007-2013 grant 2007-4230. 

Poiana project funded by Society of Antiquaries of London, Cardiff University.