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News and stories from the world of Archaeology and its related disciplines

Neolithic feasts at Stonehenge

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Britons’ Stone Age ancestors possessed some unexpected talents, scientists have discovered. On top of their prowess in constructing great monoliths such as Stonehenge, they were also adept at staging first-rate parties.

Roast sweetened pork consumed with a range of rich dairy products including cheese and butter appear to have been commonplace at feasts – according to an English Heritage exhibition, Feeding Stonehenge, which will open this week at the stone circle’s visitor centre.

“More than 4,500 years have passed since the main part of Stonehenge was constructed,” said curator Susan Greaney. “But thanks to the sophistication of techniques we now have for dating and identifying chemicals, we can deduce – from food fragments left in pots and from the bones left in the ground – what meals were being consumed there.”

Stonehenge was constructed in several stages. However, the most important period occurred around 2,500BC when the great sarsen blocks that form the main ring were erected, said Greaney. “Recent analysis suggests this construction was completed over a period of about 50 years,” she added.

Scientists have also dated the occupancy of the neolithic village of Durrington Walls – which lies about a mile and a half north-east of Stonehenge – to a 50-year period that also occurred around 2,500BC.

“From this, we have drawn the conclusion that Durrington Walls was the place where the builders of Stonehenge lived and where they held celebrations connected with the great edifice they were building,” said Greaney.

The question is: what sustained these workers during the titanic task they had undertaken? What foods did they consume? “When we dug at Durrington Walls we found pits and middens filled with bits of pottery and bones of animals left over from feasts,” said Stonehenge researcher Professor Oliver Craig, of York University. “These have provided an immense amount of information.”

From the pot fragments, scientists were able to pinpoint fats, waxes and oils from the food cooked in these vessels. These fats, which seeped into the pottery and collected in pores, can now be analysed by a technique known as lipid analysis.

“We found the larger pots contained mainly pork,” said Craig. “However, smaller pots – which were found at different parts of the Durrington Walls site – contained dairy products. We think these milk-based foodstuffs had special significance. They may have been associated with purity or fertility, for example, and were consumed in a special area.”

The presence of dairy food poses a puzzle, however. Genetic evidence indicates that Britons at this time were lactose intolerant. Drinking milk would have made them ill. Yet dairy foods appear to have had widespread use.

This has led Craig and other scientists to argue that cow’s milk would not have been consumed directly but would have been turned into cheese and yoghurt – which would not have triggered lactose intolerance reactions. In other words, people gathering for these festivals would have been eating protein-rich dishes of butter and cheese and other processed dairy products.

As to the meat that was consumed, by far the most popular animal was the pig. “There are bits of pig skeleton, dated from this period, all over the place,” said Greaney. “And when you look at the teeth of these animals, it is noticeable that there are strong signs of decay – which suggests they were being fattened up on fairly sweet diets, possibly using honey. So honey-sweetened pork could well have been on the menu at these feasts.”

All the signs point to the fact that Stonehenge and Durrington Walls were associated with some very lavish celebrations. For example, at most other archaeological sites where animal bones have been left behind after being eaten, very little is left unconsumed. This was not the case at Durrington Walls where half-eaten chops were left discarded in many places. “This could have been the country’s first throw-away culture,” said Greaney.

This point was backed by Craig. “People were killing animals, stringing them up and eating them on a massive scale,” he said. “It must have been quite a show.”

However, this high protein intake of meat and cheeses was probably not typical of average Stone Age meals, he added. “I think people in those days would also have been eating vegetables and fruit but not here. Pork and beef and cheese – that was special festive fare – and that is what was consumed at Stonehenge.”

But the identity of any beverages that were consumed remains a mystery. “People always ask me: were our forebears consuming wine or beer or some other kind of alcoholic drink?” said Craig. “The answer is that we do not know. They may well have been, but we do not have the techniques or the evidence yet to say what that drink might be. That is for future research.”

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Face of Scythian warrior revealed

The Scythian man’s face, showing a scar from his eye socket to his jaw. Photograph: British Museum

The Scythian man’s face, showing a scar from his eye socket to his jaw.
Photograph: British Museum

The real face concealed by a clay mask on the mummified head of a Scythian warrior has been revealed for the first time in almost 2,000 years. The head is on display in an exhibition opening at the British Museum along with the scan, made in a St Petersburg hospital, which reveals that he had fine teeth, a ginger moustache, a pierced ear, a hole in his skull where his brains had been removed, and a savage wound, beautifully stitched and healed, which originally ran from the corner of his eye socket to the point of his jaw.

Since the real head closely resembles the painted mask, the curator St John Simpson assumes that the faintly smiling mask of a young woman beside him, which has yet to be scanned, is also based on her appearance in life.

Her body was found lying beside his in a timber-lined tomb chamber, and she almost certainly did not die a natural death.

Dr Svetlana Pankova with the head as it is scanned in St Petersburg. Photograph: British Museum

The Greek historian Herodotus left vivid accounts of the nomadic Scythian horsemen and archers who terrorised their neighbours from an empire stretching for centuries from the Black Sea to the borders of China. His stories, often doubted, have been vindicated by recent archaeological finds, and he wrote that when a princely warrior died, a concubine was often chosen to accompany him to the grave, along with servants and horses.

“Herodotus says garrotting was used, so that would have been relatively quick and merciful,” Simpson said. “The horses we find in tombs were usually killed by a single blow between the eyes from a pointed battle axe – quite humane, like a captive bolt for a fallen race horse – so that could be another consideration.” He added hopefully: “We do also have to remember that people really do die of a broken heart.”

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The man’s clay mask. Photograph: British Museum

The scans were completed and processed so recently that they were seen for the first time in London by the Russian curators who accompanied the spectacular loans from the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, including some of the first superb golden belt buckles and dress ornaments collected in the 17th century by Peter the Great.

The exhibition, Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia, also has loans from the new National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Ashmolean and the Royal Collection in the UK.

The nomads had no writing and built nothing permanent except their tombs, but fortunately buried everything from their world for the dead to use in the next. The displays include not just the superb golden ornaments and metal work including weapons and utensils, but, astonishingly preserved by the permafrost of Siberia, furs, textiles, wooden furniture and containers, tattooed human skin, horse harnesses and saddles, the oldest pair of chopsticks ever found outside China, and two lumps of cheese.

Their luxury imports from China included beautiful silks so precious that even scraps were carefully kept and re-used, including a piece used to trim a child’s quiver of arrows, found with the masked mummies in the Oklakhty burial ground in southern Siberia. There was also a tiny sheepskin coat, on which the man’s head was pillowed.

The same tomb held two even more eerie objects, which Simpson hoped to borrow for the exhibition: literally straw men, two life-size stuffed effigies, with clay masks similar to those on the real heads. They were too fragile to travel, and are still being studied – but the first x-rays suggest they contain cloth bags of cremated human remains, presumably carried on horseback across the plains until they could be added to the bodies lying in the family tomb.

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A gold plaque depicting a Scythian rider with a spear, part of the exhibition. Photograph: V Terebenin/The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

“When I saw them lying in a dimly lit room in St Petersburg, and one of the curators lifted the head – shedding bits of straw – to look at me, it was an image straight out of some Hollywood horror movie,” Simpson recalled. “I put the photograph on my office door as a way of saying ‘keep away from here’ in the last three weeks I was working flat out trying to get the catalogue finished – it was very effective.”

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