Does economy affect religion? Does religion affect economy?

Religion and social economy don’t outwardly appear to be related. However each can affect the other in context, form and intensity.

When one studies zooarchaeology, s/he is seeking knowledge about the animals that existed in the past for the purpose of understanding the culture of the society that exploited them. Not only are the taxa being identified, but additionally the understanding of the degree of exploitation of the animals to better appreciate the importance of those animals in the lives of the people ultimately being studied. Are there other motives for examining zooarchaeological remains other than discovering the economic status of the society?

To address the question at hand, one must first acknowledge what economy consists of to the society in question and then look at the animal assemblages zooarchaeologists have uncovered. Studies must then be performed on the remains to determine how the animals may have applied to the economic and non-economic structure of the society.


Other avenues that one would not immediately assume to be economic or non-economic in nature must be looked at as possible reasons for keeping animals in the context of a household. Both sides must be considered and weighed carefully and equally to present a thorough answer to the question. The question of whether culture and societal functions extend beyond economy, or if they are all ultimately linked, is what will be addressed in this article.

Economy which is ultimately the purse of a society, deals with all matters involving capital, trade, production, sales, acquisitions and other debits and credits affecting the group. Many seemingly non-economic aspects of a society can also contribute to the financial situations of the society and the surrounding groups that are directly or indirectly affected by them. Gift-giving, diet, agriculture, hunting, feasting, marriage and other monetary and non-monetarily driven features can, in some way or another, contribute to the society’s economy. All of these aspects can be studied to a certain extent using zooarchaeological techniques. A possible exception in this argument may be animal use in a religious context.

An additional item to consider is the person who is seeking to study the zooarchaeological information and his reasons for doing so. A biologist, wishing to study animal diseases, biological functions, osteology, genetics or any other type of biological science using zooarchaeological remains, may not possess more than a passing interest in the economy or any other aspect of culture surrounding the animal remains. However, a paleo-anthropologist or archaeologist would no doubt be inquiring about the social explanations and possible economic reasons for the conditions of the remains. As an archaeologist, it is essential.

The duration of this article will be from an archaeological (and anthropological) standpoint and the aspects which will be discussed will include how/if economy is affected by the religious use of animal worship and sacrifice. Several examples of which there is little or no apparent economic link will be discussed as well. Rather than honing in on any one time period, the focus will be more on general traditions of the world’s people, with examples from various time periods.


The question of whether or not religion can be tied to economy is a debatable one. The use of animals in non-food, strictly religious means, is more difficult to link economically; however, it can still be attempted. In Stallibrass’s (2005) paper, she discusses the use of animal bones in a religious context. Vertebrae of several types of large fish, along with worked cattle femur heads, were discovered in a medieval chapel excavated in Chevington, Northumberland in Northern England.

The vertebrae had also all been modified. The spiny processes of each vertebrate were broken off and the remaining piece was then polished to a smooth surface. The inner circle of each individual vertebrate was also smooth. This was likely due to a thread, small rope or other fibrous material acting as a stringer. The cattle femur was also modified and strung. One femoral head hemisphere was discovered among several worked vertebrae in many instances. These strung bones were likely sets of rosary beads or paternosters.

The sets of vertebrate rosary beads were found buried in pits adjacent to the altar. The pits were originally thought to be used as support pits for scaffolding (Stallibrass 2005, 109), however it is more likely that this was the disposal of the rosary into a religious context or offering to Mary, the mother of the Christian god, as well as the concealment of the Catholic faith in such a tumultuous religious era. Zooarchaeologically, this appears to be a strictly religious practice with no obviously looming economic implications.

Religion and economy do not necessarily go hand in hand, however, the people who obtained the materials needed for constructing these rosaries or any other religious artefact made with fish remains, would need to either be in the fish processing business or in a trade agreement with other groups who utilize fish regularly.

This is certainly a possible link between the economy of a society and its religion. The availability of certain animals and materials, or the ability to trade for the necessary animal products, implies a certain economic status among the people using them in a ritualistic or religious fashion. Sea faring peoples undoubtedly will have easier and more inexpensive means of acquiring the seafood and products. Trade routes and economic alliances would need to be established for landlocked societies to be able to acquire the seaborne goods.

An example which may produce a more obvious link to economy is the Smithfield Roman cow burial which was uncovered next to a shrine, buried with the aspiration of the bountiful reproduction of their livestock. The cow was fully articulated and the flesh was likely not consumed at all. This type of fertility ritual was not an uncommon practice. Animals found buried in grain pits take on an even more significant meaning (Cunliffe 1983, 155; Wilson 1992, 302, Wilson 1999, 299). The increase in the fertility of an animal or type of animal has certain economic aspirations; the hopes of regeneration to produce more animals, ultimately more food, supplies and trade money or goods.

The food preparation of early observant Jews, is one in which the economic link is difficult, if not impossible to identify; if one even exists. Historic, strict food-consumption rules can be observed both documentarily as well as zooarchaeologically in the Jewish faith as assessed by Cope (2002) and Daroczi-Szabo (2002). Kosher foods are those which are considered suitable for consumption, and therefore blessed by a rabbi. Slaughter practices in the non-Jewish Mediterranean world were the same or very similar wherever one traveled.

The observant Jewish people believed that the death of an animal should be as quick, as least traumatic and the animal carcass should be washed as thoroughly as possible. When cutting the throat of a cow or bull for example, an appropriate kosher method is to cut the throat at such angle in order for the carotid artery under the ear to easily spill the most blood possible to render the animal unconscious more quickly (Cope 2002, 26).

This ensures the least amount of mental trauma for the animal. In butchery practices, zoorchaeological evidence from the first century BC, also illustrates the possibilities of early kosher practices. As stated above, the way an animal is prepared for consumption or for sacrifice was of the utmost importance. For example, the technique used in the removal of the sciatic nerve is essential to a practicing Jew if the meat is going to be deemed kosher. Cope (2002) illustrates several butchering practices which allow for a cut of meat to become kosher in the eyes of observant Jews. This practice appears to have no economic implications and is observable through zooarchaeological investigation.

Many other religious customs can be observed though archaeological practices. Ancient Egypt was highly religious with many gods and goddesses ruling the land as well as the underworld. Ikram (2002) discusses a possible ritual deposit in Saqqara, and the faunal remains in a religious context. Animals were likely deposited for ritualistic and god-appeasing purposes. In the order of the Egyptian gods, Seth, the god of chaos, turbulence, disorder and untamed nature among others, was perfectly balanced with Horus, the god of Egypt and Osiris, the god of the underworld. Horus and Osirus were in good order, non-chaotic and balanced.

Therefore, animals matching Seth’s description and demeanour were not often found in tombs or burial sites as were animals in cooperation with Horus and Osiris’s character. Conversely, the site reported on by Ikram, shows the unusual assemblage of mainly “turbulent” animal remains associated with Seth. Most of the remains were from the left sides of the animals, as the Egyptians believed the left to be more important since the heart is on the left side. “It is possible that this deposit was related to a royal hunting ritual dedicated to the abolition of chaotic Typhonc (Seth-like) beings and the establishment and maintenance of maat, or the order of the cosmos (Ikram 2002, 43)”. Again, ancient Egypt’s economy does not appear to come into play when its religion is involved, in this case anyway.

An ancient Egyptian cemetery for the elite at Hierakonpolis, has lent some information to zooarchaeologists about the fashion in which animal remains are deposited into graves and tombs. In grave 19, researchers found an usually large, mostly complete and showing very little dis-articulation, cattle (bos) skeleton. The interesting fact about the cattle’s body was that it was treated in the same way that a human body was; by early mummification. The body was not butchered, burned or completely dis-articulated (Warman 2002, 35). Other burials in this elite cemetery had similar findings; however the burials of ordinary people, such as those at the nearby site of Adaima, indeed contained offerings of animal bones not prepared in the same fashion as their human grave-mates.

It may make one wonder about how far we can stretch the notion of economy and religion being linked even at the most minuscule level. Perhaps in the search for an economic link to the religious practices from any faith, one can observe trade routes, patterns and available resources.


Cope, C. 2002 The Butchery Patterns of Gamla and Yodefat: beginning the search for kosher practices. In Sharyn Jones O’Day, Wim Van Neer and Anton Ervynck (eds.), Behavior Behind Bones-The zooarchaeology of ritual, religion, status and identity. Proceedings of the 9th ICAZ Conference, Durham. Oxford 25-33

Cunliffe, B., 1983. Danebury: An Iron Age Hillfort, London

Daroczi-Szabo 2002. In Sharyn Jones O’Day, Wim Van Neer and Anton Ervynck (eds.), Behavior Behind Bones-The zooarchaeology of ritual, religion, status and identity. Proceedings of the 9th ICAZ Conference, Durham. Oxford 252-261

Ikram, S., 2002. Taphonic bones: a ritual deposit from Saqqara? In Sharyn Jones O’Day, Wim Van Neer and Anton Ervynck (eds.), Behavior Behind Bones-The zooarchaeology of ritual, religion, status and identity. Proceedings of the 9th ICAZ Conference, Durham. Oxford 41-46

Stallibrass, S., 2005. Art, Archaeology, Religion and Dead Fish: A Medieval Case Study from Northern England. In Just Skin and Bones? New Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations in the Historical Past BAR International Series 1410, 105-112

Warman, S., 2002. Predynastic Egyptian bovid burial in the elite cemetery at Hierakonpolis In Sharyn Jones O’Day, Wim Van Neer and Anton Ervynck (eds.), Behavior Behind Bones-The zooarchaeology of ritual, religion, status and identity. Proceedings of the 9th ICAZ Conference, Durham. Oxford 34-40

Wilson, R., 1992. Considerations for the identification of ritual deposits of animal ones in Iron Age pits. International journal of Osteoarchaeology 2,(4), 341-350

Wilson, R., 1999. Displayed or Concealed? Cross Cultural Evidence for Symbolic and Ritual Activity Depositing Iron Age Animal Bones. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 18(3), 297-305

Header Image Credit :  Yi Chen

Written by Julie St Jean

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Julie St Jean
Julie St Jean
(United States) is a Zooarchaeology Consultant based just outside of New York City, USA. Julie’s geographic experience includes excavating in Southern England, Southwest USA, Northeast and mid-Atlantic USA as well as analyzing faunal assemblages from Post-Medieval Scotland, Roman England and Medieval Italy.




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