Agriculture, Food and Non-Food Products as Seen Zoo-archaeologically

For thousands of years, animals have been exploited all over the world for agricultural and food production purposes.

The presence of different types of exploited animals may shift over time. As societies progress and incorporate new technologies, create new trade routes and extend or morph existing routes, the result is often the introduction of new species to the location. The site of Durrington Walls in Wiltshire for example, reveals evidence of a late-Neolithic shift from cattle based to pork based economy (Albarella and Serjeantson 2002, 33).

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Pigs have larger and more frequent litters which grow to maturity at a far more rapid rate than cattle and they have a propensity to be feasting animals, as they have little purpose other than for meat, and have a higher fat content deeming the animal more of a specialty product and the ability to produce an abundance of feasting animals says a lot about the economy of the society. The reasons for frequent feasting may divulge nothing more than evidence of a wealthy economy.

Though, in a less wealthy society, a grand feast may represent a special occasion, wedding, holiday or ritual. More feasts bring in more guests, trade, rituals and other economy boosting features. The Durrington Walls pigs were almost entirely domestic, and as expected, were used much more for feasting than were the cattle. This is evident by the lack of butchery evidence on pig bones. Though cut and chop marks were discovered on some of the pig bones, bos bones showed the cattle to be the favoured butchered animal. The pigs appeared to be cooked often times whole; on a spit, for instance (Albarella and Serjeantson 2002, 41). A pig roasted whole is not likely evidence of everyday cooking but of a probable feast.

The cattle population had become one of by-product production. Cattle remains found and analyzed at Durrington Walls, were those of older animals which would generally not be used for meat. These cattle were more than likely milk producing or breeding animals. Worked cattle bone evidence at the site suggests marrow extraction was taking place. This was much more relevant in cattle than in pigs perhaps as a result of the pigs being used in large-scale feasts while the cattle were the more practical, everyday animal.

Another example of an animal by-product is manure. Manuring has been an essential animal by-product for many thousands of years. Animals, such as cattle, produce their fair share of waste, no matter the original use of the animal. Meat bearing males, milking females and plough pulling castrates alike are all sources of the natural and relatively inexpensive fertilizer.

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What we find archaeologically certainly is a sign of what life was like at original deposition, although, what we do not find can also tell us many things about the society as well. Crannog sites, whose contents are primarily underwater, as well as fully terrestrial sites, provide evidence of economic status displayed by butchery patterns. The Scottish crannog site of Ederline, was probably a residential site of a wealthy individual or family. There is little evidence that show animals were butchered on the site. They were likely prepared elsewhere as the heads and feet, which are usually present at a butchering site, were missing. The pre-butchered cuts of meat were most likely brought onto the crannog at the request of the owner, suggesting a wealthier occupant resided there (Cook in Cavers and Henderson 2005, 292). This sort of economic standing is often viewable archeologically.

Another archaeologically viewable factor is the classes of people. There can be no doubt that food types and feasting methods display the status or economic standing of a person, family or society. Countless publications can attest to this notion. Serjeantson (2006) discusses which types of birds were raised and utilized by members of specific classes.

Chicken and goose consumption in England began in the Roman period while the consumption of wild birds started in the early middle ages. Everyone seemed to follow suit from there. Chickens were an inexpensive, classless bird; anyone could raise and consume them along with their eggs. While rarer, more expensive birds were reserved for the higher classes. Many of these birds were also being eaten at younger ages as acquiring them was not nearly the chore it was for the lower class community.

Pigs were animals often consumed by both the wealthy and the not-so; however, the manner of preparation of the meat was very different by the different classes. Fresh pork, in medieval times was a meat choice of the upper class. Albarella (2002) suggests that the meat was more readily available and accessible by the upper classes while the preserved form was the meat of necessity of the lower classed peasants.

In Dabney, Halstead and Thomas’s (2004) article regarding Mycenaean feasting, the topic of reciprocity arose with regards to the potential purpose of the feast. The bronze-age site of Tsoungiza at ancient Nemea was the focus of the paper. The use of one large cattle in the feast is suggestive of a large group of guests involved while the offering of food was more than likely presented by one person (as one person, as opposed to several, probably owned the cow). Along with zooarchaeological evidence, the archaeological remains of pottery provide evidence of ritual discarding of the kitchenware after the feast was complete. The idea of reciprocity was likely anticipated in other avenues such as political alliance or the creation of new trade partners (Hayden 2001, 58-59).

Moving to the discussion of living agricultural farm equipment, cattle, as well as other beasts of burden, have a quite obvious economic standing in agricultural societies. Animals exploited for traction have drastically changed the economy of many cultures.

Large scale agriculture has become the normal food production practice in many societies across the globe. Large traction animals greatly increase the ability to grow more food products for personal consumption and for trading and selling. Economic standing of the society grows and allows for more incidents of trade and expansion of the culture. The gradual importation of new species of cattle only adds to the efficiency of the traction animals as they are bred to be stronger and more practical to the agricultural practices.

Evidence for possible traction-induced stress on metapodials of large animals such as cattle is an excellent indicator that ploughing or heavy transport was practiced in a society. Obvious physical changes are seen in the skeletal remains of the weight bearing animals often if the loads are just too heavy, they are forced to bear weight at too early an age, and if they have grown up pulling weight. The physical changes are rather easy to see on a weight bearing animal, indicating the level of agricultural exploitation by the society.

Written by Julie St Jean


Albarella, U., 2002. Pig Husbandry and Pork Consumption in Medieval England. In C.M. Woolgar, D. Serjeantson and T. Waldron (eds.), Food in Medieval England: Diet and Nutrition. Oxford, Oxford University Press 72-87

Albarella, U., Serjeantson, D., 2002. A Passion for Pork: Meat consumption of the British late Neolithic site of Durrington Walls. In P. Miracle and N. Milner (eds.), Consuming Passions and Patterns of Consumption. 33-49

Cook, M., 2005. In Cavers, M. G. and Henderson, J. C., 2005. Underwater excavation at Ederline Crannog, Loch Awe, Argyll , Scotland . International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 34(2), 282-298.

Dabney, M., Halstead, P., and Thomas, P., 2004. Mycenaean Feasting on Tsoungiza at Ancient Nemea. Heperia 73, 197-215

Hayden, B., 2003. Were luxury foods the first domesticates? Ethnoarchaeological perspectives from Southeast Asia. World Archaeology 34(3) 458-469

Serjeantson, D., 2006. Birds: Food and Mark of Status. In C.M. Woolgar, D. Serjeantson, T. Waldron (eds.) Food in Medieval England-Diet and Nutrition Oxford 131-148

Header Image : Durrington Walls – Credit:  Ethan Doyle White

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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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