Middle Neolithic Farming and Food in the Stonehenge Landscape
The centuries between the Early Neolithic, with its communal burial mounds and causewayed enclosures, and the Late Neolithic, with its henges and stone circles, are not only sketchily represented in terms of monument archaeology; they also lack evidence for lifestyle, including diet.
Middle Neolithic pits are, however, increasingly being recognised through the presence of Peterborough Ware pottery and struck flint, and a seemingly consistent pattern of animal bone and plant debris deposition.
At Stonehenge, the group of five pits excavated by Historic England at West Amesbury Farm is providing much sought-after evidence for the reconstruction of diet, food processing and farming at this time. This is one of twelve Peterborough Ware pits and pit groups known so far from Wiltshire, mostly clustered around Salisbury and Amesbury. Further recently excavated pits may yet prove to be contemporary.
The reconstruction of diet relies largely on the collection, identification and analysis of animal bones discarded during the preparation or consumption of meat; plant remains preserved through charring in fires; and chemical evidence retained in human remains.
At West Amesbury Farm we were able to ensure thorough collection of even the smallest plant and vertebrate remains through the archaeological techniques of flotation and sieving of the pit fills. We were also fortunate enough to encounter a rare Neolithic partial inhumation, inserted between two of the pits.
Middle Neolithic farmers?
Cereal grains are well represented in the Early Neolithic of Wiltshire (from shortly after 4000 BC) but they seem to have disappeared from the archaeological record by the Middle Neolithic, not to return until the Bronze Age. This decline in cereal cultivation is also seemingly reflected in the archaeological distribution of saddle querns, which are unknown in Wiltshire during the Middle and Late Neolithic. Cereal grains and pulses were present in a number of pits at West Amesbury Farm, but all are likely to be intrusive, as all those grains that we have radiocarbon dated were medieval or post-medieval in origin. The presence of intrusive grains is a pattern that is repeated across sites of this period in the region and across much of southern Britain.
The lack of Middle Neolithic cereals might be related to a failure of arable agriculture (after initial success) due to climatic deterioration, the arrival of insect or other pathogens, or a change in behaviour resulting in an absence of grain deposition in pits. This latter explanation would seem unlikely given the rate at which cereals were accidentally burnt and incorporated into archaeological sites in earlier and later periods.
While the Middle Neolithic pit-diggers were not arable farmers, the pits consistently provide evidence for animal husbandry through the deposition of groups of bones. Remains of both pigs and cattle are common in the pits, including very young calves, along with some sheep or goats (the bones of which cannot always be distinguished), and less frequently dog bones. Chickens and horses, the other farm animals common today, were unknown in Middle Neolithic Britain; chickens had not yet been domesticated at the time the pits were dug (Best, Feider and Pitt 2016). Isotope analysis of their teeth suggests that the pigs and cattle in the West Amesbury Farm pits were reared locally. Many of the bones themselves were burnt, and a mixture of burnt and unburnt bone waste was put into the pits.
The West Amesbury Farm animals had been butchered, and cuts made by the flint tools used to fillet meat can be seen on some bones, while several pits show that a consistent butchery technique was used to process pigs' heads. The range of bones identified suggests that once butchered, large parts of the animals were taken elsewhere. Fat residues absorbed into the pottery from the pits confirm that the vessels were used in the processing of ruminant (cattle, sheep or goat) meat and possibly pork, as well as milk products.
The Wiltshire pit groups also included a small number of wild animal remains: aurochs (large wild cattle), red and roe deer, wildcat, rodent, mustelid (probably pine marten), bird and fox bones. Few other game animals were present at the time in Wiltshire. The smaller mammals and birds found at West Amesbury Farm may have been naturally incorporated into the pits and not hunted by people. Many of the Middle Neolithic pits in Wiltshire, including three at West Amesbury Farm, also contain tools made from red deer antler; these were often scorched, perhaps during their manufacture.
Despite the apparent absence of cereal cultivation, the Middle Neolithic diet was not restricted to animal products. All twelve groups of pits have produced evidence for gathered wild food plants, including fairly large quantities of charred hazelnut shell fragments. The burnt remains of sloe stones and crab apple pips have also been identified. This poses two questions: what was the significance of hazelnuts in Neolithic pits, and were the Middle Neolithic population of Wiltshire eating any other plant foods?
Less archaeologically visible plant foods could have been consumed, including flavoursome leafy vegetables such as fat hen, wild garlic, sorrel and nettles, or even emerging bracken fronds. Wild fruits such as bilberry, juniper, rowan, hawthorn and wild strawberry would have been available, although many would require processing to render them edible. Edible tubers or roots include wild parsnip, pignut and lesser celandine. Many wild flowers, for instance mustards and the carrot family, produce seeds which could add flavour, although some common examples known today, such as wild fennel, were not introduced until the Roman period. Fungi represent a very significant group of protein-rich plant foods, but have been completely invisible in the archaeobotanical record until the recent recovery of fungi remains from mineralised Neanderthal dental plaque (Weyrich et al 2017).
The repeated deposition of meat production waste, nut shells and antler tools with other cultural material suggests that the choice of what went into the pits was not random. The presence of charred fragments of hazelnut shell and bone in the pit deposits indicates deliberate deposition of burnt material, though general fire debris such as charcoal is rare. Hazelnuts are best stored in their shells and need to be kept dry and warm. Roasting may have been used to aid storage, although the nuts become inedible if burnt. It is more likely that nut shells were burnt as a fuel source, or perhaps as an offering.
There is still much to establish concerning the diet of Middle Neolithic Wiltshire. It is possible that some new scientific techniques will aid this process. Study of carbon and nitrogen stable isotope ratios in human skeletal remains helps shed light on sources of protein in human diets. Biomolecular and microscopic studies of human dental calculus potentially provide evidence both for foods consumed and methods used in food preparation. Archaeological scientists from Historic England and the University of York have taken the samples which could yield such information.
We would like to thank Dr Richard Madgwick and Dr Jane Evans for strontium isotope analysis of pig and cattle teeth and Dr Julie Dunne and Professor Richard Evershed for organic residue analysis of pottery.
Ruth Pelling PhD is an archaeobotanist within Historic England’s Excavation and Analysis Team and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. Her background is in UK commercial archaeobotany. She sits on the Finds Group Committee for the Chartered Institute of Field Archaeologists (CIfA). Ruth’s research interests include the tracing of changing cultural expression through food and farming (particularly in the Bronze Age and Saxon periods); African archaeobotany, and the non-food use of plants.
Fay Worley PhD is a zooarchaeologist with Historic England's Excavation and Analysis Team, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham and Secretary for the Association of Environmental Archaeology. She is a co-author of Animal Bones and Archaeology: Guidelines for Best Practice (Historic England 2014). Fay’s research interests focus on UK animal bone assemblages, but span the Holocene. In recent years she has focussed on Neolithic assemblages.
Best, J, Feider, M and Pitt, J 2016 'Introducing chickens – arrival, uptake and use in prehistoric Britain’. Past 84,
Campbell, G, Moffett, L and Straker, V 2011 Environmental Archaeology: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Methods, from Sampling and Recovery to Post-Excavation, 2 edn. Swindon: English Heritage
Canti M, Campbell, G and Greaney, S (eds) 2013 Stonehenge World Heritage Site Synthesis: Prehistoric Landscape, Environment and Economy. English Heritage Research Report 45/2013
Weyrich, L S et al 2017 ‘Neanderthal behaviour, diet, and disease inferred from ancient DNA in dental calculus’. Nature 544, 357–61
Also of interest...
Zooarchaeologists study archaeological animal bones. We develop methods, conduct analyses and curate a modern comparative collection
Archaeobotanists study archaeological plant remains. We develop methods, conduct analyses and curate modern comparative collections
Historic England technical guidance on environmental archaeology, including geoarchaeology.