12. Evidence from near Stonehenge suggests Neolithic Britains celebrated ‘Christmas.’
The late Neolithic saw chamber tombs replaced by stone circles or henges as people shifted their attention from the ancestor’s to the world around them. Henge monuments began as simple causeways terminating in circular earthworks or a wooden Henge. However, by 3000 BC, they had become more sophisticated. Now constructed from stone, henges were often aligned with specific constellations and the rising and setting sun at midsummer and midwinter respectively. As such, they were places that people could gather to mark the turning of the year and the progression of the seasons.
Stonehenge is particularly significant in this respect. Its heel stone-the single large sarsen stone just outside the main monument- was positioned to align with sunrise on the longest day of the year and sunset on the shortest day. Evidence from Durrington Walls, the Neolithic centre two miles from Stonehenge, indicates that the winter solstice was a significant time of the year. For vast quantities of the discarded bones of pigs and cattle discovered at the site, suggest the people at Durrington Walls celebrated midwinter in some style.
The bones show the people of Durrington Walls roasted the animals over huge fires before serving them to the assembled people. Many of the bones still had shreds of meat on them- a clear indication that there was so much meat available, people did not have to worry about stripping their portion bare. To consume meat in such quantities indicates Durrington Wall was hosting a festival, probably linked to one of the major celestial events at Stonehenge. So how do we know it was at the winter solstice?
The answer lies in the pig bones. For experts have analysed the bones and found they belong to animals of around nine months old. Since most piglets were born in the spring, this places the time of slaughter and so consumption at midwinter. However, this midwinter feast was not just a local affair. For analysis of the teeth and bones of the animals’ shows, they came from west Wales, northern England- and even northeast Scotland. For Stonehenge to draw people from such distances suggests that the monument and its midwinter festival were of great significance across the whole of Britain. This significance perhaps explains how the organisers of the building work at Stonehenge were able to obtain the workforce and resources they needed.