Another byproduct of that Channel 4 Documentary on Sunday night is a fresh look at the published data on the teeth of those cattle from Durrington Walls. I was encouraged to do this by the extravagant claims made by Prof MPP about all those midwinter solstice barbeques at Durrington, attended by most of the British population. It sounds as if those parties were quite something, with 4,000 people there every time, celebrating, worshipping and building Stonehenge. All the visitors apparently brought their own meat supplies on the hoof........ as MPP says on the new documentary, it was not so much a matter of "bring a bottle" as "bring a cow."
When MPP first announced these gigantic events to the world, the media loved it, and there was saturation coverage.
But how strong is the evidence? I have searches as best I can, and unless there is a lot of unpublished material in the pipeline, the conclusions about gigantic feasts attended by ancient clans from the Orkneys (and everybody else of note) appear to be based on 13 animal teeth. I give the key references and abstracts below. In Sarah Viner's podcast, she mentions that 2 of the sampled teeth are from animals that spent all their lives on Salisbury Plain, 7 came from animals born in Central England, South Wales or Devon and Cornwall, 2 probably came from Cornwall or Wales -- or maybe further north, and 2 had higher values, showing that they probably came from the Grampians of Scotland or from restricted areas in South Wales or Cornwall where certain types of igneous rocks are prominent. They might also have come from the continent.
There was nothing in the research to suggest any link with the Orkneys -- so goodness knows why MPP went trundling off there for the film and pretended that people had travelled all the way from Orkney to Durrington walls for one or more of the gigantic winter solstice feasts.
The conclusions of the "strontium signature" research - based on a statistically very small sample -- are that most of the animals killed and eaten were relatively local, and that two of them were from a greater distance. As far as I can see, there is nothing in the research to suggest that these animals were not moving about all over the country in the process of normal trading (or cattle stealing) activities -- and nothing to suggest that they were brought to Durrington Walls specifically for the purpose of feasting at the solstice. Why, in any case, would people want to travel all the way from Scotland in the depths of winter, with animals on the hoof, all the way to Stonehenge....?
As far as the "winter killings" goes, I would like to see the evidence on that. In all farming communities you kill animals in the winter because that's when you need extra protein and because you can avoid the cost of feeding them during the cold snowy spells of weather which come along after the turn of the year.
So there we are then. We seem to have yet another gigantic MPP fantasy, based upon remarkably little evidence. I know that the evidence for feasts comes from pig bones and other sources as well, but when we look at the idea of these great gatherings of revellers converging from all quarters of Great Britain, it would be helpful if we could have a bit more evidence please, and a few more teeth to look at.......
Here are the key publications:
Cattle on the hoof: Strontium isotope analysis of cattle teeth from Late Neolithic Durrington Walls
(Sarah Viner, Jane Evans, Umberto Albarella, Mike Parker Pearson) (2009?)
Cattle are a common component in zooarchaeological assemblages from the Late Neolithic in Britain and were undoubtedly important in both the economic and ritual spheres of Neolithic life. At present relatively little is known about the role of mobility in the husbandry regimes that characterised the time, as the movement of animals can be difficult to detect in the archaeological record. The application of strontium isotope analysis can provide insights into the movement of animals and humans in the past. In the case of cattle, tooth enamel provides 87Sr/86Sr values that are set during the period of tooth development and that will reflect the geology of the grazing area. By comparing these early grazing signatures with values from archaeological sites it can be established whether individuals were of autochthonous or allochthonous origin. This paper will present the results of Sr isotope analysis of 12 cattle teeth from Late Neolithic contexts at Durrington Walls, Wiltshire, a site located on chalkland. The findings suggest that while some animals were raised under conditions similar to those that are found at Durrington Walls, a number could not have been raised on chalkland. Not only were a large proportion of the cattle analysed raised in non-chalk areas, but a number of possible areas of origin could be identified for the allochthonous specimens. These results have implications for the long distance movement of cattle, and for the interaction between people in different parts of the British Isles during the Late Neolithic.
Sarah Viner, University of Sheffield
Jane Evans, NIGL, Keyworth
Umberto Albarella, University of Sheffield
Mike Parker Pearson, University of Sheffield
Cattle mobility in prehistoric Britain : strontium isotope analysis of cattle teeth from Durrington Walls (Wiltshire, Britain)
Viner, Sarah; Evans, Jane; Albarella, Umberto; Pearson, Mike Parker. 2010. Cattle mobility in prehistoric Britain : strontium isotope analysis of cattle teeth from Durrington Walls (Wiltshire, Britain). Journal of Archaeological Science, 37 (11). 2812-2820. 10.1016/j.jas.2010.06.017
An important role has been envisaged for cattle during the Neolithic period in Britain based on their prominence within the faunal assemblages of the period as a whole. The relative ease with which cattle can be moved over long distances and the requirement to provide ample pastureland leads almost inescapably to the consideration of prehistoric cattle movement. This paper presents the results of an investigation into the mobility of Late Neolithic cattle at the well-known site of Durrington Walls, Wiltshire. 87Sr/86Sr values from cattle (Bos taurus) teeth were compared to local vegetation samples, well established values from archaeological material and to known geological conditions in order to determine whether individual animals were raised in areas with similar geological conditions as those found at the site (i.e. chalkland), and therefore whether the animals were of allochthonous or autochthonous origin. In total, 13 mandibular molars from Durrington Walls were analysed. Two of the animals included in the study were certainly raised under conditions similar to those found in the vicinity of Durrington Walls, but the other 11 provided signatures so distinct from that found locally that they could not have been raised on chalkland. From the results it is suggested that cattle were brought to the site from a variety of grazing areas in different parts of Britain. The implication of these findings is that the movement of cattle was undertaken during the Late Neolithic, and that in a number of cases substantial distances must have been traversed in order for animals to reach the site. In addition, the study provided valuable information for the interpretation of the site, which attracted people from a variety of regions, probably for ceremonial reasons.