Feasting with Early Medieval Chiefs: Locating Political Action through Environmental Archaeology

Hrisbru excavation site
Hrisbru excavation site

Feasting with Early Medieval Chiefs: Locating Political Action through Environmental Archaeology

Session: Early Medieval Europe I 

Davide M. Zori (Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Univ. of California–Los Angeles)

This excellent paper was the first given in the session on Early Medieval Europe. It looked at various archaeological excavations in Iceland and Denmark and the political role feasting played in pre-Christian Viking societies. 

The feast was materially and symbolically used to celebrate the passage of the dead in pre-Christian societies, like the feast in Beowulf in Hrothgar’s towering mead hall. The largest domestic animals were slaughtered because they were symbols of wealth, vitality and reproduction. In pre-modern society, alcohol was associated with hospitality and induced an altered state which facilitated socialization and consumption of large amounts of alcohol showed the hosts status and wealth. Archaeological evidence from the Yeavering Temple showed pits filled with animal bone, and the remnants of a kitchen for feasting. The age and sex of the animals can reveal the selection of specific animals for the purpose of feasting and indicate distinct preferences for the animals used at feasts, for instance, beef was the preferred meat. The Irish sites, showed a high incidence of cattle, and a marked preference for pork which is rare for medieval Ireland.



In Tissø, Dennmark an elite feasting hall, cult building , cult related deposits of animal bone, and row of cooking pits was excavated. Feasting

Hrisbru excavation diagram - Longhouse floor
Hrisbru excavation diagram – Longhouse floor

was the keystone of the Scandinavian political system in pre-Christian times. The Sub-artic island exposed Vikings to some constraints for basic feasting goods such as beef and beer. Zori then investigated the Hrisbru excavation. This was a tenth and eleventh century manor, a mixed pagan and Christian graveyard and a hall. The house size, beef consumption and beer drinking of this site were examined. Did they use cattle or sheep? They preferred cattle even though it was easier to keep sheep. Archaeologists found examples of animal bones from Hrisbru, and found horse, cow, pig and sheep. In Iceland, the household consumed relatively large quantities of beef but cattle rearing was based on political feasting needs. Barley to Beer Barley cultivation was risky in Iceland as it was colder and trickier thus limiting barley cultivation to high status farms. Barley cultivation was quickly introduced and grain fields were protected from grazing. In approximately 1220, they ceased to find evidence of barley seed; it appears to have disappeared from the pollen record and may have indicated a decline in chieftain power. It was politically cultivated, not for regular use and there was a definite shift to subsistence versus political culture. lastly, Zori mentioned that there was feasting in Roman times so this was not just a Northern practice. It was cross cultural and examples can be found as far as Thailand and South East Asia.

~Sandra Alvarez