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.”

SOURCE.

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How to drink like a Norman

“The English are noted among foreigners for their persistent drinking.” observed John of Salisbury, Bishop of Chartres from 1176-80.

But whatever they thought of the English reputation for drunkenness, the Normans appear to have had no problem with joining in our frolics…

norman-drink-main-image
Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry.

Almost every Anglo-Saxon village had an ale house, also known as a ”Gild-house”. It was the heart of the community, where all important meetings took place, from business transactions to wedding celebrations. An ”ale” was the term used for a social gathering, and just about any event would merit an ale.

These could range from bride-ales (which is where the word “bridal” originates) to lamb-ales. Church festivals in particular were a good excuse for a knees-up. By the 13th century some bishops were so fed up with their parishioners’ bawdy behaviour that they tried to ban ales. Their pleas for decorum fell on deaf ears.

Scot-ales were particularly disliked by the clergy. ‘’Scot’’ means payment, and at a scot-ale that meant contributing a flagon or two of beer (an early form of ‘Bring Your Own’), or its money equivalent. In fact, many scot-ales were a means of raising cash for the host, and a lord of the manor hosting a scot-ale could insist on your attendance. Certain members of society could avoid scot-ales, such as the foresters and beadles who were exempted from compulsion in the Charter of the Forest of 1217.

A toast to your health

A common practice at any ale was to toast your fellow drinkers with a hearty ‘Washeil!’ (health be to you!–which later became ”Wassail” as in some Christmas carols) to which they would reply ‘Drincheil’ and duly drink. After a while the toast became a good excuse to get your drinking buddies to drink even more.

Gerald of Wales, Archdeacon of Brecon (1146–1223) recounts the story of a Cistercian abbot who challenged a weary traveller to a drinking game. Instead of the customary toasts of Washeil and Drincheil, the abbot changed them to ‘Pril’ and ‘Wril’ respectively. The pair continued toasting each other into the small hours of the morning. Unbeknown to the poor abbot, his drinking companion was none other than King Henry II. Fortunately, the king saw the funny side, greeting the abbot with “Pril” the next time he met him.

The staff of life

After bread, beer–or rather ”ale”, since at this time it was made without hops–was the staff of life. Because possibly polluted water was rightly considered too dangerous to drink, everyone drank beer, from small children through to grown men and women. For the common people, this wouldn’t change after the Norman Conquest.

Many different kinds of beer were available, from bright ale (which as the name suggests was clear, because the dregs had been allowed to settle before consumption), through mild ale (or ”small beer”) to extra strong twice-brewed ale. Sometimes herbs like rosemary, yarrow, betony, gale or bog myrtle were used to flavour the beer. Kent was particularly famed for its beer. Even the French were said to admire English ale, reputedly saying it could rival wine in colour and flavour!

An apple a day

Apples had grown in England for countless centuries, but it seems the Normans were chiefly responsible for introducing us to the joys of cider. William the Conqueror may have brought casks of cider with him when he invaded in 1066.

By the middle of the 12th century cider was being made in Kent and Sussex. It was said to rival beer in popularity, with the 12th-century guru of etiquette, Daniel of Beccles, declaring it to be the ‘Englishman’s drink’. If you had a choleric temperament, cider was thought to be good for you as it was cold and moist, and thus counteracted the warm and dry characteristics of a choleric drinker.

However, cider was not a drink embraced by all. In the 16th century, the diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot claimed that people in cider-making areas were pale and wrinkled despite being young!

In vino veritas

Wine was considered to be the most prestigious drink during the middle ages, and under the Normans our wine consumption increased. Although Daniel of Beccles would warn “Beware of drinking wine greedily like Bacchus”.

The Normans, and particularly their monasteries, planted vines; by the time of Domesday Book (1086) there were nearly 40 vineyards in southern England. The slopes below the monastery at Ely were even known as the isle des vignes.

Although the Normans had some success with wine production in England, English wine was still considered inferior to French wine. Fortunately, if the grapes were rated as being not ripe enough for wine they could be turned into verjuice, a sharp vinegar which featured heavily in medieval cuisine. The vineyards in Ely were particularly renowned for the production of verjuice. Cheap wine imports from Gascony would eventually cause the English wine industry to go into decline during the reign of Henry II (1154-89)

Medieval wine was considered past its best after a year, irrespective of where the wine had come from or its original quality. Wine travelled in barrels–bottling was a long way in the future–and once these were tapped the wine would begin to decline. ‘Gone-off’ wine could either be sold cheaply or perhaps spiced and sweetened to make it more palatable. One version of the latter concoction was known as Hippocras, which took its name from the bag it was strained through, the ‘Hippocratic sleeve’ reputedly invented by the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates to filter water.

If selling bad wine wasn’t an option, or spicing it failed, you could try the following recipe from Guillaume Tirel ( known as Taillevent), 14th-century chef to Charles V of France:

To Cure Ropy Wine, 
or Wine that has Taken on the Smell of the Cask,
or a Musky or Musty Taste.

Beat two pennyworth of ginger together with two pennyworth of zedoary [white turmeric] and set this powder to boil in two quarts of wine, skimming well, then pour it while it is hot into the vessel and stir it right to the bottom, them stop the vessel up tightly and let the mixture sit until it has settled.

SOURCE

Archaeology under threat in UK

From Nature News:

UK archaeologists are facing a wave of cuts that they say will lead to a loss of skills and take the teaching of the subject “back to the 1950s”.

To cut its national budget deficit, the UK government has launched an austerity programme that will see research funding stay static for the next four years. But archaeology is expected to be hit particularly hard, because the subject depends on a combination of public institutions run by several different government departments that are all seeing simultaneous budget reductions. “It seems like a perfect storm of factors is coming together,” says Mike Heyworth, director of the Council for British Archaeology, an educational non-governmental organization.

Although precise details of where the axe will fall are still emerging, the trend is already clear. At least 200 jobs will go at English Heritage, the government-funded body charged with managing the historic environment.

English Heritage receives about £130 million (US$205 million) per year in government funding, but this will be cut by 32% over the next four years, greater than the 24% savings demanded of its parent body, the government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). As a consequence, new archaeological grants will be cut by a third.

“The cut to English Heritage’s grant from government will be exceptionally challenging to manage after years of funding decline,” said Kay Andrews, chair of English Heritage. “It will require us to make some tough decisions.”

Museums will also face a squeeze from both local and national government. The DCMS has announced that it aims to transfer responsibility for the department’s non-national museums to “other bodies”. Four museums in the county of Hampshire are now to be run by volunteers, and Grantham Museum and Stamford Museum in Lincolnshire are to close. The Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers has warned that in many parts of the country, there is now no museum space to store and preserve important finds uncovered by archaeological teams.

Some counties are expected to lose their archaeological officer, the main adviser on archaeological matters involved in planning building work, prompting fears that sites will be destroyed by developers without being recorded.

At the University of Bristol, the department of archaeology is facing the loss of 4 out of a total of 16 staff posts, despite its high profile, having been closely involved in the popular Channel 4 TV show Time Team, as well as the BBC2 series Coast.

Some university field units, such as the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit, have already closed. “This will affect universities’ ability to dig,” says Chris Cumberpatch, vice-chairman of Rescue — the British Archaeological Trust, an organization trying to map the effect of the cuts as they emerge.

In addition, the proposed government increase in university fees means that all students will now have to pay £6,000–9,000 per year to study. “Archaeology departments will have to charge at least £7,000 to stand still,” says Anthony Harding, an archaeologist from the University of Exeter and chair of the archaeology section of the British Academy, Britain’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences. “There is a real danger we will start to get only students from wealthy backgrounds applying, and that will take us back to the situation in the 1950s.”

As yet, the British Academy itself has not had its funding cut, and is in discussion with its parent body, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, about its share of the overall research budget, says Robin Jackson, the academy’s chief executive.

But according to Harding, the academy has already axed its Small Research Grant scheme, which may affect Britain’s capacity to work overseas. “Archaeologists typically used this to set up international collaborations,” he says. “So that alone will cause a big decline in archaeological research of all kinds.”

“I am very disturbed to hear about the cuts,” says Valerii Kavruk, director of the Museum of Eastern Carpathians, Sfântu Gheorghe, Romania. “For some years I have had a collaboration with British scholars funded by small grants from the British Academy and using students from British universities. Such projects will have great difficulty taking off in the future.”

Although the cuts are intended to save money, Heyworth says that they could lose the country a valuable source of revenue. “We are facing a huge loss to national wealth because the government is ignoring what heritage contributes to tourism,” says Heyworth. According to the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index, which assesses and ranks the reputation of different countries, potential visitors to Britain rank museums as their fourth favourite activity out of 32 possibilities.

Toby Sergeant, a spokesman for the DCMS says: “These are tough times but we hope that the cuts will not impact too much on frontline services.”

From Nature News.