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…
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.