Cooking up Prehistory

Changing attitudes to food. Opening access to the past.

In this blog post Dr Julia Best, Lecturer in Archaeology at Cardiff University, explains how the Consuming Prehistory Project brought Neolithic food into the present day.

Maybe the thought of fish and chips at the seaside conjures up memories of childhood holidays. Perhaps nothing beats a full English breakfast after a heavy night. Or does a good old family Sunday roast tick the box? Whatever your food preferences, there are probably specific foods and drinks that form an essential part of your memories and your identity. Exploring new foods from different places and cultures is something that many people enjoy. But, if you were invited to tuck into a big bowl of Neolithic food, would you be salivating?

Whilst Tudor banquets abound, the public profile of prehistoric food is often poorer, with people imagining bland and boring fare. A bowl of grey gruel leaps very quickly into mind for many people, whilst others may not be able to picture it at all. From October 2017 to October 2018 English Heritage’s temporary exhibition space hosted “Feast! Food at the time of Stonehenge”, a revolutionary display which included new research findings from Durrington Walls, the settlement where the people who built Stonehenge may have lived and feasted. This showcased food in all its forms for visitors to Stonehenge, drawing on recent research into the movement of food animals and the processing of dairy products. AHRC Follow on Funding created “Consuming Prehistory: Feeding Stonehenge” to (amongst other things) devise an interactive series of events to accompany this exhibition, at the Stonehenge site and far beyond. These events explored in detail food and feasting at the time of Stonehenge, but then situated this famous site this within its wider context. Led by our outreach collective Guerilla Archaeology, the activities were tailored to each setting and were taken on tour around Britain (Figure 1). The events included working with community groups local to Stonehenge, delivering a “Big Feast Weekend” at Stonehenge itself, and touring large music, arts, and science festivals such as Green Man Festival, HowTheLightGetsIn, and New Scientist Live. This took prehistoric food and archaeology to new and non-traditional audiences in 2018 and 2019, with the popularity of the activities resulting in them being repeated at some festivals two years in a row.

Figure 1: Feasts and festivals around the UK. Photo credit: Kirsty Harding

Festival-goers and Big Feast Weekend visitors were encouraged visit “Stonehengebury’s” (Figure 2) an immersive pop-up Neolithic shop, where they were tasked with put together a Neolithic feast from ingredients available in Britain 4500 years ago, whilst avoiding others that were introduced later (Figure 3). This challenged preconceptions of what foods were available in the past, and also explored links between past and present dietary themes. People could also try their hand at making flour on a replica quern, handle archaeological artefacts, and choose Neolithic grain varieties to grow at home. Over 20,000 people took part (with many more engaging via social media – Figure 1), and more than 4200 Neolithic Feast menus were created, with people often working in teams against their friends and family.   

Figure 2: Stonehengebury’s in festival form at Green Man (Photo credit: Julia Best)

Whilst there was great variation in responses, the activities revealed some key patterns in how people perceived ancient food (Figure 4) before the events, and how their knowledge changed. For example:

  1. Most people thought that rabbits were native to Britain (c. 74% of participants), whereas they are in fact a Roman introduction (see this AHRC blog post for more information on rabbits and on chickens).
  2. Many people also thought that sheep and/or chickens were native to Britain (around 50% of participants). Both of these animals are again introductions, even our quintessential sheep! Sheep were brought to Britain during the Neolithic (probably around 3800 BC) and chickens first appear at around 500 BC in the Iron Age.
  3. One of the biggest surprises for visitors was finding that fish did not feature prominently in Neolithic food (around 72% of participants thought that they did). Fish fall out of favour in Neolithic Britain. They are rare on archaeological sites in this period and scarce in isotope-based dietary analyses of human bone, suggesting that they were not a highly-used foodstuff. The arguments around why this is the case range from people preferring new foodstuffs to cultural taboos.
  4. Around 69% of participants thought that dairy products (such as milk or cheese) were not available. Dairy products are a very important part of Neolithic food. Evidence from sites as far apart as the Outer Hebrides and Durrington Walls near Stonehenge shows that early farmers were processing milk in ceramic pots, potentially to make it more digestible (adults in the Neolithic were generally lactose intolerant).
  5. Several people were shocked that food intolerances extend so far back in time, with one visitor saying that she could now use this as evidence when people claim her own intolerance is a “modern fad”. This made people reconsider how they think about allergies and intolerances today.
  6. Discovering that food-miles was relevant in prehistory also surprised visitors. Learning that animals were brought to Stonehenge from varied locations across much of Britain changed how people thought of food in prehistory – moving away from locally sourced survival and instead including pleasure and largescale feasting. This created a connection between past and present, with many people currently thinking about the distances their food travels. Others linked travelling a long way to attend an event themselves to the experiences of Neolithic people travelling to Stonehenge.

Figure 3: Shop ingredients from which participants tried to select Neolithic items. Photo credit: Rachel Roberts

Figure 4: Example menus showing the prevalence of the rabbit. Photo credit: Julia Best.

Challenging modern ideas and preconceptions of food in prehistory captured people’s interest and gave a personal feeling to the past. The range of familiar foods that could have been available also regularly surprised people. In turn, we were equally amazed and impressed by the creativity shown in menu creation. During one rather delicious day two members of the Consuming Prehistory team (Dr Julia Best and Professor Jacqui Mulville), volunteers from Stonehenge, and recovering service personnel and veterans from Operation Nightingale joined forces to replicate Neolithic foods in an event titled “Ready, Steady, Cook: Neolithic”. The dishes created on this day were based around evidence from Durrington Walls/Stonehenge and from wider Neolithic Britain (e.g. Figure 5). These formed the basis for a designed set of take-home recipes that were shared with over 9354 people at events, who wanted to recreate Neolithic-style food at home. Involving people in creating their own recipes based on available foodstuffs, and providing evidence-linked activities for them to try at home breaks down boundaries to the past and allows connection through personal preferences and shared experiences.

Figure 5: One of the dishes created and examples of a recipe given away. Photo credit: Julia Best, Rhiannon Philp and Kirsty Harding

Food creates a very personal link between people and the past – there is something for everyone to relate to. Going beyond “traditional” ways of engaging with heritage and instead moving into immersive, interactive, and provocative discussions where people can interpret the evidence independently allows them to conceptualise the past for themselves. Experiencing the past with multiple senses is essential: many visitors to the Big Feast Weekend at Stonehenge commented on the familiarity of food being reproduced and described how smelling a feast cooking brought the landscape to life (Figure 6). Suddenly prehistory does seem so distant when you can start to imagine what it would have smelt like, looked like, tasted like, or how it might have felt to travel across Britain to meet people and share food together. People can start to imagine the cultural and social memories that lay behind the food of the past in ways that are not so very different to today.

Figure 6: Experimental food production at The Stonehenge Visitor Centre. Photo credit: Jacqui Mulville and Emily Edwards.

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