Stonehenge’s Builders Transported Megaliths Using Tallow, Says Archaeologist

Lipid (fat) residues identified in Grooved Ware pottery from Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge, have been interpreted as evidence for large-scale feasting associated with the construction of Stonehenge, around 2500 BCE. But, new research from Newcastle University suggests that because the fragments came from dishes that would have been the size and shape of buckets, not cooking or serving dishes, they could have been used for the collection and storage of tallow, a form of animal fat.

Stonehenge. Image credit: Regina Wolfs.

Stonehenge. Image credit: Regina Wolfs.

“I was interested in the exceptional level of preservation and high quantities of lipids we recovered from Grooved Ware pottery,” said Dr. Lisa-Marie Shillito, author of the study.

“I wanted to know more about why we see these high quantities of pig fat in pottery, when the animal bones that have been excavated at the site show that many of the pigs were ‘spit roasted’ rather than chopped up as you would expect if they were being cooked in the pots.”

It is now generally accepted that the megaliths that make up Stonehenge were moved by human effort.

The huge stones could have been moved by 20 people by placing them on a sled and sliding them over logs.

Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery from Durrington Walls is one of the best studied for organic residues, with over 300 shards having been analyzed.

“An analysis of fat residues is a well-established technique for revealing what foods different type of pottery was used for,” Dr. Shillito said.

“But more attention needs to be paid to how this information is interpreted.”

There are still many unanswered questions surrounding the construction of Stonehenge.

“Until now, there has been a general assumption that the traces of animal fat absorbed by these pieces of pottery were related to the cooking and consumption of food, and this steered initial interpretations in that direction,” Dr. Shillito explained.

“But there may have been other things going on as well, and these residues could be tantalizing evidence of the ‘greased sled’ theory.”

“Archaeological interpretations of pottery residues can sometimes only give us part of the picture.”

“We need to think about the wider context of what else we know and take a ‘multi-proxy’ approach to identify other possibilities if we hope to get a better understanding.”

The study was published in the journal Antiquity.

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Lisa-Marie Shillito et al. Building Stonehenge? An alternative interpretation of lipid residues in Neolithic Grooved Ware from Durrington Walls. Antiquity, published online July 15, 2019; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2019.62

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