Stonehenge’s Builders May Have Feasted on Sweet Treats

Excavations near the iconic English monument revealed traces of fruits and nuts

small pies cooking on hot stone by fire
Neolithic people may have cooked predecessors of modern mince pies on stones heated in a fire's embers. Andre Pattenden / English Heritage

Travelers visiting Stonehenge this month can sample a dish that may have been enjoyed by the monument’s builders some 4,500 years ago. As Alex Green reports for PA Media, volunteers with English Heritage, the organization that cares for the prehistoric site, are cooking up mince pies with ingredients used by these Neolithic workers, including hazelnuts and crab apples.

Excavations at Durrington Walls, a settlement where Stonehenge’s creators lived around 2500 B.C.E., have previously yielded fruits and hazelnuts, as well as pork, beef and dairy products. No evidence suggests that the site’s inhabitants turned these foods into pies, but English Heritage notes that they presumably had all the necessary ingredients for the meal. People at the time grew cereal crops and may have used wheat, hazelnut or acorn flour to bake treats on flat stones or ceramic pots heated in a fire’s embers.

“Adding meat fats to hazelnuts and fruit would have made a great energy bar, full of calories,” says Susan Greaney, senior properties historian at English Heritage, in a statement.

Much like today, Neolithic people didn’t appreciate food purely for its nutritional value. Seasonal feasts may have represented celebrations and opportunities for community bonding, particularly with those traveling from a great distance to participate in the enormous Stonehenge building project.

“We’ll never know for certain what recipes they favored, but it’s fun to imagine travelers being greeted with a tray of mince pies,” Greaney says.

person carrying basket of pies in front of Stonehenge monument
Volunteers at Stonehenge are baking the "Neolithic-inspired mince pies" every Monday in December. Andre Pattenden / English Heritage

Research shows that the winter solstice was a key time for the individuals who lived and worked at Stonehenge. Visitors from as far away as Scotland traveled to the monument, bringing cows and pigs for feasts, reports Steven Morris for the Guardian

The Stonehenge Riverside Project, a collaborative effort by academics at five universities in the United Kingdom, found evidence of fruit- and nut-gathering at Durrington Walls, which stands 1.5 miles northeast of Stonehenge itself. Trash heaps near ancient homes contained the remains of hazelnuts, crab apples and sloes (also known as blackthorns, the berries are used to make sloe gin). 

Stonehenge was built in several stages, with the earliest henge monument at the site constructed around 3000 B.C.E. The iconic stone circle seen today was erected around 500 years later. Building activity continued in the area for hundreds of years.

Much of the evidence about these workers’ eating habits comes from the settlement at Durrington Walls, which housed hundreds of prehistoric people during a relatively short period of 50 to 100 years, as Morris wrote for the Guardian in 2017.

Per BBC News, volunteers will bake pies inspired by the discoveries around the hearth in Stonehenge’s Neolithic Houses every Monday in December. For those unable to make it to Wiltshire, English Heritage offers two recipes for Neolithic-inspired mince pies. One uses authentic Stone Age ingredients and open-fire cooking, while the other is adapted for modern kitchens. The Neolithic recipe calls for flour made from acorn and einkorn, the oldest known form of wheat, as well as lard, rose hips and fruit.

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