#FolkloreThursday: On High Status Animals, or Imagining Scrooge McDuck’s Vault But Filled With Pigs and Horses

When we think of “high status” in the archaeological record, we usually think about intricate metalwork or elaborate jewellery…but what about animals? If that sounds strange, remember this: we still have animals and animal-based foods that are culturally considered “high status” today! Think of things like caviar, lobster, peacocks, etc…cover them all with some gold leaf and you’ve got yourself a millionaire’s prized possessions.

As I’ve talked about before on this blog, one of the greatest strengths of zooarchaeological research is that there are so many elements of the past that can be derived from animal remains. So to demonstrate this point, here’s a quick look at two of the high status animals from Iron Age Britain…

Ignore the fact that this is a more medieval-looking high status feast…no offence to the British Iron Age, but it’s just way easier to find images like this online! (Photo Credit: Costume Company UK Ltd)

The humble pig as a high status animal may not come as a surprise…after all, how many feasting scenes in films have you seen where one of the main courses is a giant roasted pig complete with an apple in the mouth? Raising pigs for consumption in the Iron Age took up a considerable amount of resources and land, so it follows that higher status individuals would be the few to keep and consume pigs (Serjeantson 2007). Many archaeological sites with evidence of feasting have been observed to produce many pig bones as well – it seems like that cliche has a long history! Given how difficult it was to maintain pigs, it could be interpreted that feasts with large amounts of pigs consumed were important, possibly reflecting an important event or ritual that deserves a large portion of one’s wealth being used (Madgwick and Mulville 2015).

Pigs also have a symbolic value as well by having a wild counterpart in the form of boars. Beliefs in Iron Age Britain seem to have placed emphasis on concepts of “liminality” (or the “between” places that are neither here nor there) as well as ideas of the domestic sphere and the wilderness. With that in mind, its possible that this duality of pig/boar, domestic/wild could have made pigs (and boars) high status in symbolic/ritual value as well. Boar were often hunted during this period, and were especially appreciated for its fierceness, leading to many boar motifs found in Iron Age weaponry and armoury (Green 1992, Parker Pearson 1999).

A bronze figure of a boar from a Late Iron Age chieftan’s grave at Lexden, Colchester, Essex (Photo Credit: Miranda Green)

Probably one of the more equally valued animals at the time was the horse. Unlike pigs, however, horses were more useful to humans alive than dead; horses allowed people to move quickly across long stretches of land and transport large numbers of goods – what isn’t there to like about ’em? Horses were also important to both hunting and warfare, especially with the invention and use of chariots (Green 1992, Chadwick 2007).

Although highly valued in life, it is how horses are treated in death that provide evidence to their status in the Iron Age. There are many examples of horse burials that display a sort of reverence that isn’t afforded to other animals: for example, there are instances of horse remains that have been deposited with human remains. Chariot and cart burials – which were common in the Arras Culture of Iron Age Yorkshire – can also be interpreted as emphasising the importance of horses through the activities they were associated with (warfare and transportation), although most of these did not contain horse remains. However, in 2017 a chariot burial with a horse skeleton was recovered in Pocklington, Yorkshire (Keys 2017).

An Iron Age horse and chariot burial from Pockington, Yorkshire (Photo Credit: David Wilson)

So there you have it – a quick look at how zooarchaeologists can interpret aspects about social status and hierarchy in the past from animal bones – obviously, there are other animals that are considered relatively high status, and that all pigs and horses weren’t treated this way everywhere in the Iron Age – there’s lots of nuance that needs to be used in interpretation. But we have lots of evidence to suggest that pigs and horses were indeed considered high status animals – and hey, I have to agree…I mean, have you ever had pork cracklings? Mmm…

References

Chadwick, A. M. (2007) Trackways , hooves, and memory-days – human and animal movements and memories around the Iron Age and Romano-British Rural Landscapes of the English North Midlands. Prehistoric Journeys. Oxbow Books.

Green, M. (1992) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. Routledge.

Keys, D. (2017) Iron Age Chariot and Horse Found Buried Together in Yorkshire. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/iron-age-chariot-horse-yorkshire-archaeology-significant-find-half-a-century-buried-together-a7659091.html

Madgwick, R. and Mulville, J. (2015) Feasting on Fore-Limbs: Conspicuous Consumption and Identity in Later Prehistoric Britain. Antiquity.

Parker Pearson, M. (1999) Food, Sex and Death: Cosmologies in the British Iron Age with Particular Reference to East Yorkshire. Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Serjeantson, D. (2007) Intensification of Animal Husbandry in the Late Iron Age? The Contribution of Sheep and Pigs. The Earlier Iron Age in Britain and the Near Continent. Oxbow Books.

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#FolkloreThursday – Magical Flight with Birds

My current PhD research is focused on looking at animals in ritual, so I’ll be making short blog posts examining the different ways animals are seen in cosmological contexts as part of my own contribution to the #FolkloreThursday feed on Twitter. 

Wood Pigeon
A wood pigeon skull with its ulna – note the notches on the ulna, where feathers would attach.

In my recent work with mixed assemblages involved in funerary rites, I’ve come across many bird bones. At this preliminary stage in my research, it appears that butchered birds may have been incorporated into rites performed at this site.

But why birds? What’s so special about them?

Birds, barring a few examples, have the unique ability to fly. To those in the past, this was probably acknowledged as an act emblematic of supernatural power, the ability to move from the heavens to the earth with ease. Birds were considered divine messengers, whose appearance could indicate an omen from the gods and goddesses above (Green 1992).

Shamans in various communities have been noted to adopt aspects of the bird in their work and appearance; this displays their power of “flying” from one world to the next (Eliade 1964).

Throughout later prehistoric Europe, birds continued to have an association with the mystical and the magical. Birds such as ravens and crows have been known to “talk”, which ultimately associated them with divination and prophecy (Serjeantson and Morris 2011). Birds of prey and scavenging birds were most likely incorporated into funerary rites involving excarnation, or the defleshing of a body – this, in turn, led to an association of these birds with death (Harding 2016). Wild birds appear to have been hunted, but not necessarily eaten – perhaps these birds were participants in ritualistic hunting?

Helmut of Ciumesti
This helmet from Ciumesti is an example of co-opting the bird of prey as a means of showcasing an almost otherworldly fierceness

These beliefs have been observed in various artefacts from the later prehistoric – this includes Iron Age art depicting wings, drinking vessels decorated with waterbirds, and even weaponry and armour using bird motifs (Green 1992).

Of course, these aren’t the only instances of the magical properties of birds – we see this in various myths across cultures, from Odin’s ravens to Athena’s owl. Birds continue to be associated with the magical to this day…what would Harry Potter be without Hedwig, after all?

Bird Ulna
A comparison of different birds and their ulna bones – (top to bottom) herring gull, eider duck, and magpie. Again, note the notches for feathers!

References

Eliade, M. (1964) Shamanism: Archaic Technique of Ectasy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Green, M. (1992) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London: Routledge.

Harding, D. W. (2016) Death and Burial in Iron Age Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Serjeantson, D. and Morris, J. (2011) Ravens and Crows in Iron Age and Roman Britain. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 30 (1), 85-107.