In thinking about funerals past and present, food and drink should always be at the top of the agenda. The clothing accessories and other artefacts, monuments and architectures that archaeologists spend most of their time musing about are of course important. Indeed, archaeologists are justified to be ‘body-centred’ as well as ‘artefact-centred’ in their views of past funerals. After all, it is human remains and associated trinkets that we dig up and food and drink rarely survives.
Now all this eating and drinking at early medieval funerals isn’t a presumption. Ethnographies of pre-industrial societies provide us with a strong expectation regarding the importance of feasting at funerals, as do occasional antique and medieval written sources. Yet it is the weight of archaeological data that really hits home. Vessels and other artefacts pertaining to eating and drinking are among the most common artefacts interred with the dead in early medieval Britain, north-west Europe and Scandinavia. When we consider the many more wooden and leather vessels will only occasionally survive (or their metal fittings and rims alone survive), we have to entertain the possiblity that vessels (or fragments of vessels) were among the most commonplace aspects of mortuary practice and often placed with the dead between the fifth and seventh centuries AD.
This much is familiar territory to anyone interested in early medieval mortuary practice. Still, the full implications of taking a ‘food and drink-centred’ view of early medieval funerals is seldom thought through. Inspired by Bonnie Effros’ 2002 book and Christina Lee’s 2007 book, both addressing food and drink in the early medieval mortuary arena, I am working on a chapter that wishes to consider further the ‘fluid’ aspects of early medieval mortuary ritual, focusing on the importance of funerary drinking in particular.
I have already, recently, put into print how hydrating the dead might have been a key metaphorical theme in the treatment of the cremated dead in fifth- and sixth-century eastern England and the importance of usually richly decorated cinerary urns in particular (Nugent and Williams 2012).
In a Liverpool TAG paper in December 2012, delivered in my absence by the superb Toby Martin, I set up some further ideas about the significance of food and drink, focusing on vessels placed in furnished inhumation graves from east Kent.
Here are some of the ideas. First, Many authors have noted that vessels were not only placed with the dead, fragments of vessels are found higher up in the grave-fill indicating that drinking and the deposition and/or fragmentation of vessels was linked to many stages of the funeral. Vessel glass suggests that comparable vessels were placed on pyres with the cremated dead.
Second, while vessels are only found surviving in a minority of graves, I identified a clear and consistent ‘choreography’ to their placing that suggests pot-positioning was remembered and held a convention among the burial community (a point already made by Christina Lee). This varied between cemeteries and between regions, and these differences are interesting and perhaps significant. Within individual cemeteries, the presence and absence of vessels may have been ways by which graves were made to appear similar and different from each other; part of strategies of inclusion and exclusion, and different tempos of remembrance.
Third, I also suggested that vessels constructed particular aesthetics of symmetry and assymmetry in the laying out of the grave, discernible by looking at how the body, vessel(s) and other artefacts are arranged within the tableau composed in the funeral.
Fourth and finally, I suggested that some vessels were placed as to imply gestures of drinking for the dead. Rather than cold and dry, might graves have been back-filled saturated in drink poured into them, just as alcohol might have been an important accelerant used to facilitate the burning of pyres? How far to do we go to liquify early medieval funerals? A starting point is to begin, not with the artefacts themselves, but with the ‘fluid gestures’ in which they were part. Sometimes, those gestures too have an archaeological signature, helping us to understand vessels in graves as as components of dynamic ritual gestures.
There are actually a wider range of points worthy of further research into food and drink in early medieval funerals; evidence of cooking revealed by hearths, plant macrofossils revealing food placed with the dead, as well as the study of a range of vessel-types placed in graves. To recognise its importance, however, we do need to start with a food and drink-centred perspective on the early medieval funeral. Anything else is simply the drink talking.