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How do you build Stonehenge? Add lard

How do you build Stonehenge? A...
Lard may have greased the skids used to haul the giant megaliths of Stonehenge
Lard may have greased the skids used to haul the giant megaliths of Stonehenge
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Lard may have greased the skids used to haul the giant megaliths of Stonehenge
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Lard may have greased the skids used to haul the giant megaliths of Stonehenge

According to a recent Newcastle University study, if you want to build a replica of Stonehenge, get some lard – lots of it. By studying neolithic pottery from a site near the ancient stone circle, archaeologists suggest that the traces of pig fat weren't the result of cooking, but were used as a lubricant to help move the gigantic megaliths that now stand on the Wiltshire landscape.

Stonehenge is one of the world's great enigmas, as well as one one of its great ancient wonders. For centuries, people have puzzled, probed, and argued about who built the circles of standing stones, why they were built, and, most puzzling, how they were built.

Legends claim that the Devil or Merlin the wizard brought the stones from Ireland by magic, or that giants carried them from Africa. In modern times, less romantic theories have been put forward, but one great problem is that very few clues remain as to how the stones were moved and erected.

It also doesn't help that Stonehenge wasn't built all in one go, but in stages during the British neolithic period, starting in about 3100 BC and ending around 1600 BC. During this time, the circle was laid out, the bank and ditch dug out, and a series of now long-rotted wooden structures were built – these were later replaced by increasingly elaborate stoneworks.

The greatest of these were the megaliths, which weigh up to 50 tonnes (55 US tons) and were moved to Stonehenge from a source 20 miles (32 km) away in the Marlborough Downs. The smaller bluestones that "only" weigh between two and five tonnes were transported from the Preseli Hills in Wales some 155 miles (250 km) away.

Exactly how these were moved, or how Stonehenge or the many other features on the ritual landscape on Salisbury Plain were constructed is still uncertain. However, a series of experiments over the past 100 years have proven that even the most massive of the stones can be moved with enough manpower, even with the technology of the day.

One very likely technique was that of using sledges and rollers that had been greased in some way. Up until now, this has been largely a matter of conjecture and experimentation, but the Newcastle team found more direct evidence from excavations at Durrington Walls, which is about two miles (3.2 km) northeast of Stonehenge. This was the site of a neolithic village that was occupied for about 500 years from around 2800 to 2100 BC, and was connected with the henge-making activities in the area – including that of a henge of its own.

At Durrington Walls, archaeologists found 300 fragments of Grooved ware, also called Rinyo-Clacton ware. It's an indigenous form of ancient British pottery made by the Neolithic Grooved ware people, dating back to about 3000 to 2000 BC. Typically, it consists of flat-bottomed pots with straight sides and thick walls, often with basket-like patterns, that were hand-formed rather than thrown on a wheel.

Adhering to this pottery were traces of what was once pig fat. According to Senior Lecturer in Landscape Archaeology, Dr. Lisa-Marie Shillito, that in itself isn't unusual – it had long been thought that this was because the pots were used to cook food for the workers building the monuments. However, reconstructions of the pots showed that they were the size of buckets that were too large for cooking or serving food. In addition, the pig bones found in the vicinity didn't match the cooking hypothesis.

"I was interested in the exceptional level of preservation and high quantities of lipids – or fatty residues – we recovered from the pottery," says Shillito. "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."

Shilto's new explanation was that the pots were used to store pig lard, which could then be used as a lubricant for sledges and rollers. However, she emphasizes that there is still work to be done on the mystery.

"There are still many unanswered questions surrounding the construction of Stonehenge," says Shilto. "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. 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 research was published in the journal Antiquity.

Source: Newcastle University

7 comments
owlbeyou
The 5-50 ton stones were on sledges and rollers greased with pig fat? Really? Now that's a stab in the dark. That's a hell of a lot of pigs. And how did the greasy set up not interfere with the moving process? Put some grease on your hands and see how much gripping strength you've lost. Stonehenge was "assembled" during a vast span of time that roughly coincides with the Pyramids in Egypt. Massive multi-ton stones could only have been moved by rolling them, with wooden cribs that gave them a cylindrical shape and using ropes (how long have rope-making skills existed?) and pulled by many men. Going up a gradient must have been slow, but using chocs to stop them from rolling backwards gave them the ability to do this in stages. People had lots of time in their hands and efforts may have been sporadic as teams were assembled to renew the effort. It certainly couldn't have been organized into a massive effort of thousands of laborers like in Egypt since Stonehenge is a far smaller and less complicated affair. So there you go. Unless aliens helped them do it, this was accomplished with human power and ingenuity and lots of time. And during the construction the local folks may have had occasional feasts with greased pig-wrestling contests to keep themselves entertained. : )
Bob809
What an absolute load of tosh! Pig fat/lard! How many pigs were required to move the stones from there place of origin to the Stonehenge site? The stones are not perfectly cut, so there are lots of bumps and dips in them, where the fat would either squuze out... why am I bothering? Thos that believe this garbage need to get out more.
owlbeyou
Of course, animals may have been doing a lot of the pulling. Pigs ain't good for that either. ; )
Winterbiker
We had a house moved a few years ago...guess what the movers used to slide the house off their beams and onto the house foundation? They told us that lard was the "best" for this job. I can still remember seeing our dog licking the planks after the movers were done with them.
EZ
Gee, Harold Leedskin (Sp.?) must have had a lot of pigs boiled down to make his coral castle. All those archaeologists need to come out of the dark ages.
Nik
Sometimes, I think archaeologists are living in cloud cuckoo land! (Well, that the politest expression I could think of.) Every year England has a winter, and most winters, it snows, and freezes. Therefore, in winter, when the harvests are over, there are loads of spare hours in the day, and many spare hands that can make sleds, that slide on SNOW and ICE! This is the most likely scenario. Maybe in times when snow and ice was not around, they may have used pig fat, but why waste good food, when you have ice and snow for free? As for bucket size pots being too big for food? As Steptoe and Son would say, ''Cobblers!'' I live in France, and during summer they have many ''Brocant's'' or in English terms, car-boot sales, or USA, garage sales. In those sales there will almost always be large cast iron cooking pots, in which meals for the whole family would have been cooked. Some of them would dwarf the average modern bucket. People in the past led hard, very strenuous, short lives, and as a consequence, they ate very large hearty meals, which would have been cooked in large pots suitable for a large hungry family. Even in recent times, a family could consist of 10-15 individuals. Try plonking 10-15 hefty, heaped plate, meat and veg meals in a bucket, and see how much room remains. Archaeologists!.......
Dirk Scott
On Orkney, where megalithic stone structures predate Stonehenge, the locals still lubricate the movement of large things (e.g. boats ashore) using seaweed. It is abundant, tough and very slippery.