Dr Lisa-Marie Shillito from Newcastle University re-examining evidence from pottery vessels recovered from Durrington Walls.
Dr Lisa-Marie Shillito from Newcastle University re-examined evidence from pottery vessels recovered from Durrington Walls, suggesting that the lipid residues found on the pottery were not all remnants of food waste. [Newcastle University]

In recent years, a flurry of archaeological work in the Stonehenge landscape has uncovered a wealth of spectacular new details about this area’s prehistoric use. Above all, these findings clearly show that our knowledge of the past is constantly evolving. When it comes to archaeological analysis, there are very few certainties, and re-examining earlier evidence in light of either new finds or the development of new technologies is essential to get nearer to the truth. (See ‘Science Notes’ in CA 343, and our feature on analysis of cremated remains from Stonehenge in CA 344.) Adding to this, a recent paper published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.62) highlights the fact that – even when presented with the same evidence – multiple interpretations can and should still be explored.

In this study, Dr Lisa-Marie Shillito from Newcastle University re-examines evidence from pottery vessels recovered from Durrington Walls, a Neolithic settlement two miles from Stonehenge, which is thought to have possibly housed the community that built the main phase of the monument. Previously, the ‘Feeding Stonehenge’ project (CA 334), had analysed over 300 sherds of Grooved Ware pottery from the site for the presence of lipid (or fat) residues. This work found that the vessels appeared to have been frequently used in the processing of cattle carcasses, with some evidence for the storage of pig and dairy fats as well.

These results were in contrast to the faunal remains found at Durrington Walls, which overwhelmingly came from pigs, with much smaller quantities of cattle bones. Examining the faunal remains further, though, clears up the picture a bit, showing that the cattle appear to have been butchered into small portions, which would have fitted well into the pots found on the site. This shows a clear relationship between the butchering of cattle and its cooking/storage. But the story is not so clear when it comes to pigs. At Durrington Walls, the vast majority of pig bones recovered were burnt and buried while the bones were still articulated, suggesting that the carcasses had been roasted whole over a fire and not broken down to be stewed/stored in pots. So how then did porcine fat end up in these vessels, if pigs were not cooked in them?

Lisa-Marie, one of the researchers on the original ‘Feeding Stonehenge’ project, suggests that the pig fats found in the Groove Ware pots were not necessarily the remnants of food storage or cooking. Could the pig fat found in these vessels have been collected instead from the drippings of fat during the spit roasting process? If so, it is possible that these Durrington Walls vessels were actually for the storage of tallow, the product that forms when fat is rendered.

A fragment of Grooved Ware pottery from Durrington Walls that was analysed for lipid residues.
A fragment of Grooved Ware pottery from Durrington Walls that was analysed for lipid residues. [Image credit: Lisa-Marie Shillito]

The storage and use of tallow is not necessarily a novel idea for the Neolithic. Indeed, the use of tallow has been inferred in other prehistoric contexts, based on vessel shapes. In particular, Lisa-Marie cites a stone lamp-shaped artefact from Lascaux, France, and a Mesolithic ‘blubber’ lamp from northern Europe, both thought to have been used to burn fat for lighting. The Durrington Walls pottery, however, is not particularly distinctive in form. Large and bucket-shaped, they could have been used to store many different types of product.

Although the vessel shape is not particularly helpful, examining what tallow has been used for across history can provide a few ideas. While tallow extracted from cattle and sheep is hard, pig tallow (or lard) is softer and more ‘greasy’. In the past, lard has been used in a variety of ways, including to make candles and soap, to condition leather, or as a secondary fat for cooking.

In addition to these possible uses, Lisa-Marie also explores the idea that lard could have been used to grease the sleds possibly used for the movement of the Stonehenge sarsens. This is an intriguing idea, and certainly worth exploring, but it is by no means a definitive explanation. Instead of saying definitively that lard was used to erect Stonehenge (as other media outlets have done), this should be viewed as one of a number of uses that the Durrington Walls inhabitants might have found for the by-product of pig roasting.

We may never know for sure exactly what the Grooved Ware pottery from Durrington Walls contained, but what this paper has shown us is that we should not assume that the presence of animal fat always equates to food residue. Our ancestors were an inventive bunch, who used the limited resources available to them to their advantage. It is not outside the realms of possibility that the Neolithic occupants of Durrington Walls may have had need for tallow, whether for lighting, cleaning, or, indeed, greasing.


This news article appears in issue 355 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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