Feasting - The Archaeology and History of Celebrating Food

Prehistoric Feasts - Celebrating Together over a Cornucopia of Food!

Fragment of wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, Egypt, 18th Dynasty, c1350 BC.
Fragment of wall painting of a feast, from the tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, Egypt, 18th Dynasty, c 1350 BC. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

Feasting, loosely defined as the public consumption of an elaborate meal often accompanied by entertainment, is a feature of most ancient and modern societies. Hayden and Villeneuve recently defined feasting as "any sharing of special food (in quality, preparation or quantity) by two or more people for a special (not everyday) event".

Feasting is related to the control of food production and often is seen as a medium for social interaction, serving as both a way to create prestige for the host and to create commonality within a community through the sharing of food.

Further, feasting takes planning, as Hastorf points out: resources need to be hoarded, preparation and clean up labor needs to be managed, special serving plates and utensils need to be created or borrowed.

Goals served by feasting include paying debts, displaying opulence, gaining allies, frightening enemies, negotiating war and peace, celebrating rites of passage, communicating with the gods and honoring the dead. For archaeologists, feasting is the rare ritual activity that can be reliably identified in the archaeological record.

Hayden (2009) has argued that feasting should be considered within the major context of domestication: that domestication of plants and animals reduces the risk inherent in hunting and gathering and allows surpluses to be created. He goes further to argue that the requirements of Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic feasting created the impetus for domestication: and indeed, the earliest feast identified to date is from the peri-agricultural Natufian period, and consists solely of wild animals.

Earliest Accounts

The earliest references to feasting in literature date to a Sumerian [3000-2350 BC] myth in which the god Enki offers the goddess Inanna some butter cakes and beer. A bronze vessel dated to the Shang dynasty [1700-1046 BC] in China illustrates worshipers offering their ancestors wine, soup, and fresh fruits.

Homer [8th century BC] describes several feasts in the Iliad and the Odyssey, including the famous Poseidon feast at Pylos. About AD 921, the Arabian traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan reported a funeral feast including a boat burial at a Viking colony in what is today Russia.

Archaeological evidence of feasting has been found throughout the world. The oldest possible evidence for feasting is at the Natufian site of Hilazon Tachtit Cave, where evidence suggests a feast was conducted at an elderly woman's burial about 12,000 years ago. A few recent studies include Neolithic Rudston Wold (2900–2400 BC); Mesopotamian Ur (2550 BC); Buena Vista, Peru (2200 BC); Minoan Petras, Crete (1900 BC); Puerto Escondido, Honduras (1150 BC); Cuauhtémoc, Mexico (800-900 BC); Swahili culture Chwaka, Tanzania (AD 700–1500); Mississippian Moundville, Alabama (1200-1450 AD); Hohokam Marana, Arizona (AD 1250); Inca Tiwanaku, Bolivia (AD 1400-1532); and Iron Age Hueda, Benin (AD 1650-1727).

Anthropological Interpretations

The meaning of feasting, in anthropological terms, has changed considerably over the past 150 years. The earliest descriptions of lavish feasting provoked colonial European administrations to comment disparagingly on the waste of resources, and traditional feasting such as the potlatch in British Columbia and cattle sacrifices in India were outright banned by the governments in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries.

Franz Boas, writing in the early 1920s, described feasting as a rational economic investment for high status individuals. By the 1940s, the dominant anthropological theories focused on feasting as expression of competition for resources, and a means to increase productivity. Writing in the 1950s, Raymond Firth argued that feasting promoted social unity, and Malinowski maintained that feasting increased the prestige or status of the feast-giver.

By the early 1970s, Sahlins and Rappaport were arguing that feasting could be a means of redistributing resources from different specialized production areas.

Feast Categories

More recently, interpretations have become more nuanced. Three broad and intersecting categories of feasting are emerging from the literature, according to Hastorf: celebratory/communal; patron-client; and status/display feasts.

Celebratory feasts are reunions between equals: these include wedding and harvest feasts, backyard barbeques and potluck suppers. The patron-client feast is when the giver and receiver are clearly identified, with the host expected to distribute his or her largesse of wealth.

Status feasts are a political device to create or bolster status differences between host and attendees. Exclusivity and taste are emphasized: luxury dishes and exotic foods are served.

Archaeological Interpretations

While archaeologists often are grounded in anthropological theory, they also take a diachronic view: how did feasting arise and change over time? The upshot of a century and a half of studies have produced a plethora of notions, including tying feasting to the indtroduction of storage, agriculture, alcohol, luxury foods, pottery, and the public participation in the construction of monuments.

Feasts are most readily identifiable archaeologically when they occur at burials, and the evidence is left in place, such as the royal burials at Ur, Hallstatt's Iron Age Heuenberg burial or Qin Dynasty China's terracotta army. Accepted evidence for feasting not associated specifically with funerary events includes the images of feasting behavior in iconographic murals or paintings.

The contents of midden deposits, particularly the quantity and variety of animal bones or exotic foodstuffs, is accepted as indicators of mass consumption; and the presence of multiple storage features within a certain segment of a village is also considered indicative. Specific dishes, highly decorated, large serving platters or bowls, are sometimes taken as evidence of feasting.

Architectural constructions--plazas, elevated platforms, longhouses--are often described as public spaces where feasting may have taken place. In those places, soil chemistry, isotopic analysis and residue analysis have been used to bolster support for past feasting.

Sources

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