Iron Age Feasting

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Communal drinking and feasting, particularly the regulated distribution of alcoholic beverages, were central to establishing and maintaining social relationships in Iron Age Europe and the British Isles. The symbolic concepts and the material culture associated with the distribution of alcohol as a social lubricant characterize intergroup and intragroup competition from the Neolithic until at least the ninth century a.d. on the Continent and into the fifteenth century in Britain and Ireland. There are three primary sources of information on this subject: First there is archaeological evidence in the form of drinking and feasting equipment from burials and, to a lesser extent, from settlements and ritual sites and in the form of iconographic representations of feasts and drinking equipment. Second are Greek and Roman accounts of the drinking habits of the "barbarian" peoples with whom they had increasing contact after the sixth century b.c. And, last, there are the epics, law texts, and other written sources produced by the Celtic- and Germanic-speaking societies in the early Christian period. Scholars have focused their attention on the identification of the alcoholic beverages available, the material culture associated with the production and consumption of those beverages, and their distribution and function in society, including the social conventions and behavioral norms accompanying drinking and feasting. The focus of study includes attitudes toward drinking and alcohol abuse, the ideological significance of the production of alcoholic beverages, the equipment used to dispense and consume it, and the physiological response to alcohol itself.


The alcoholic beverages available to northern and central European peoples before contact with the wine-growing Mediterranean cultures were of two types: honey mead and beer or, more accurately, ale, a fermented barley beverage brewed without hops, an addition to the brewing process that does not appear until historic times. Mead was primarily an elite drink because it was produced from honey taken from the hives of wild bees, the only form of sweetener available to prehistoric European peoples and therefore a valuable commodity. Ale has a very short shelf life in the absence of refrigeration, and without the addition of hops, which acts as a preservative as well as a flavoring agent, this seasonally available beverage was consumed relatively soon after being produced. Wine was a luxury import before the introduction by the Romans of viticulture, the growing of the wine vine, to France and Germany. The different beverages available account in part for the northern European "binge drinking" pattern compared with customs in the Mediterranean, where wine was consumed with meals on a daily basis and moderate consumption patterns tended to be the norm.


Greek and Roman writers are virtually unanimous in their condemnation of Celtic and Germanic drinking practices. They derogatorily claimed that "barbarians" drank beer by choice; took their wine neat rather than mixed with water, according to the Mediterranean custom; imbibed to excess and engaged in boasting and brawling while under the influence; and were sufficiently addicted to alcohol to be willing to pay exorbitant prices to obtain it. In the fourth century b.c., Plato's Laws included the Celts in a list of "six barbarian, warlike peoples who are given to drunkenness, as opposed to Spartan restraint." And according to the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus in Rerum gestarum libri, calling a fellow Roman a "sabaiarius," or "beerswiller," was considered an insult. In the first century a.d., Pliny the Elder, another Roman writer, describes the nations of the west as consuming an intoxicant made from grain soaked in water. In Historia naturalis he writes that "there are many ways of making it in Gaul and Spain, and under different names, though the principle is the same." The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, in the first century b.c., describes the Celts in his Bibliotheca historica as "exceedingly fond of wine," sating themselves "with the unmixed wine imported by merchants; their desire makes them drink it greedily, and when they become drunk they fall into a stupor or into a maniacal disposition." The historical value of these texts is difficult to determine, partly because so many classical authors borrowed from one another without attribution, particularly in the absence of firsthand knowledge of the peoples they were describing. There is also the obvious propaganda value of denigrating cultures and peoples who were in the process of being conquered or assimilated.


Feasting and the consumption of alcohol are essential components of several European cultural traditions: elite marriage and inauguration rituals, sovereignty and patron-client rituals, death and funerary rituals, and sacrifice and offering rituals. In its sociopolitical manifestation alcohol functioned as a vehicle for maintaining elite prerogatives through feasting and the distribution of liquor to warrior retinues and other clients as an incentive and a reward for service. Sharing food and drink simultaneously communicates messages of membership and exclusion, particularly in Celtic and Germanic societies, where communal feasting served to rank individuals in relation to one another. The structured consumption of alcoholic beverages accompanied most rites of passage, with those of elite groups being most visible in the material culture and the documentary record.

Archaeologically, the elite drinking complex is particularly clearly defined in mortuary contexts. Significantly, when drinking and feasting equipment is not associated with elite mortuary ritual, it appears in the form of votive deposits in rivers, bogs, and springs, an example of the conspicuous destruction of wealth that marks competitive elite signaling behavior in prehistoric Europe. When the energy of a community was invested in elaborate deposition of the dead, however, elite individuals were buried with a standard set of recurring elements that distinguish such graves from the majority of burials.

One of the earliest archaeological examples is a beaker containing mead from a Bronze Age burial at Ashgrove in Fife, Scotland, dated to 1000 b.c. Evidence for fermented ale was found in a vessel of roughly the same date from North Mains in Perthshire, Scotland. Beeswax residue was present in an even earlier ceramic vessel of Neolithic date from Runnymede Bridge in Berkshire, England, suggesting that it originally held mead. One of the latest examples is the Kavanagh Charter Horn, a brass-decorated ivory horn that was the basis of the Kavanagh family's claim to direct descent from the royal house of Leinster as late as the fifteenth century a.d. The geographic range of the sociopolitically significant drinking and feasting complex appears to have Indo-European roots, surviving as a fundamental aspect of cultural identity in northern Europe for much longer than in those areas where it is presumed to have originated.


Initially, elite drinking vessels were made of pottery and, more rarely, of exotic materials such as amber or gold, followed by a gradual increase in sheet-metal vessels, with the addition of silver and glass in the Roman and early medieval periods. Occasionally, under ideal preservation conditions, wooden drinking equipment has been documented in archaeological contexts, from finely turned cups and flagons to enormous tuns (casks) or barrels made of wooden staves bound with organic materials or metal. From Neolithic times on, however, there is a pervasive association between drinking and feasting equipment and high rank or status, even though the number and combination of vessel types vary.

The drinking horn is a category of elite symbolism associated with ideologically constituted alcohol consumption that appears consistently from the Bronze Age through the early Christian period; in fact, it is the only item of drinking equipment that is associated with almost every period of later European prehistory. Most drinking horns were made of actual animal horn, the largest coming from the now extinct aurochs, but horns of pottery, bronze, iron, glass, and ivory are known. Genuine horn vessels were in use throughout prehistory and into early medieval times, whereas glass horns made a relatively late appearance, mainly in Roman and early Germanic contexts.

Numerous examples of metal-decorated horns are known, particularly from the Iron Age; most are embellished with sheet gold or bronze. In addition to the nine horns from the Hochdorf burial of the sixth century b.c., near Stuttgart, horns were found in the Early La Tène (fourth century b.c.) Kleinaspergle burial, also near Stuttgart, and a group of five Early La Tène burials from the Rhineland: Reinheim, Bescheid, Schwarzenbach, Hoppstädten-Weiersbach, and Weiskirchen A.D. Saar. Bronze Age examples include the gold-decorated horn from Wismar in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and a silver-mounted drinking horn, together with other drinking equipment, from the Lübsow burial in northern Germany, of the first century a.d. Adorned pottery drinking horns are documented in the Lausitz culture (Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age) of northeastern Germany and Poland, with roughly sixty known examples. In Britain silver-giltdecorated drinking horns are known from two Anglo-Saxon burials of the sixth century a.d., at Sutton Hoo and at Taplow Court.

Drinking horns are found in archaeological contexts throughout eastern Europe, including the Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Hungary, Croatia, and other parts of the former Yugoslavia, as well as in northern Germany and Scandinavia. A drinking horn is depicted in an important seventeenth-century painting from Frisia, in which it acts as a symbol of dynastic succession. Clearly, the symbolic "load" of this particular element of the drinking complex was geographically and temporally resilient. Other indigenous vessel categories were cups, beakers, cauldrons, and various kinds of flagons, including the La Tène Schnabelkanne, an Etruscan form that was copied as well as imported by Celtic elites.


The alcoholic beverages consumed by European elites were imbued with ritual significance, owing to the pyrotechnic (involving fire) production process, the psychoactive (mood-altering) nature of alcohol, and the relative rarity of some of the raw materials required for production, which could (as in the case of honey or grapes) themselves have symbolic significance. Saint Patrick, for example, is said to have refused to touch honey even when he was suffering from severe privation, because of its pagan ritual significance, and in Ireland both beer and mead are found as elements in personal names. Beer has fairly prosaic associations for today, compared, for example, with wine, which appears as a ritually redolent alcoholic beverage in post-Roman, early Christian Europe at least in part as a result of syncretistic associations between wine, blood, and sacrifice.

In secular as well as religious contexts in Merovingian Gaul, for instance, symbolic exchanges of weaponry, precious objects, and food were a critical component of the creation and maintenance of friendship (amicitia) and elite power. The link between drinking equipment and mortuary ritual is present in these early Christian societies until at least the sixth century a.d., both in terms of objects placed in the graves and with respect to the funerary feasts conducted at the grave site. The monasteries took over from Celtic and Germanic leaders as producers and distributors of alcoholic beverages, with feasting continuing as the most important form of gift exchange and patronage. The symbolic link between elites and spectacular drinking vessels of precious metals also was retained, and ritualized presentations of such tableware continued in the Carolingian and Merovingian courts. If given on behalf of the poor, they represented appropriate gifts by laymen or clerics to the church.

In the Celtic as well as the Germanic literary tradition (from the Mabinogion to Beowulf), drinking vessels sometimes were given names, a phenomenon also associated with weapons, especially swords, underscoring the ritual significance of the equipment used in drinking alcoholic beverages. In early Christian contexts, gifts of feasting and, especially, drinking vessels were thought to retain something of the identity of the person who had bestowed them; it is possible that a similar anthropomorphization

of drinking equipment existed in prehistoric Europe.

The iconographic evidence for the ritual significance of drinking vessels, particularly those of metal, consists of a number of so-called cult vessels and other representations of drinking equipment, ranging from the ninth and eighth centuries b.c. to at least the first century b.c. These include vessels that formed part of the feasting and drinking equipment of early monasteries and church leaders. Recurring elements in these "cult" vessels are wheeled vehicles, horses, horned beasts, female figures, and drinking vessels. The silver Gundestrup cauldron found in a Danish bog in 1891 represents a continuation of this tradition; it is dated to the late second century b.c. and may be of Thracian origin, despite its obviously Celtic iconographic elements (fig. 1).


In the insular literary tradition, drinking vessels represent the obligation of the ruler to be generous and to provide for his or her people, a constant theme in northern Europe, as it is in most so-called heroic societies. Horns and cauldrons often are "testing" vessels, in the sense that only a true king can drink them dry. The largest of the nine horns in the Hochdorf grave is evocative of such a tradition: at 5.5 liters (ten pints), it had five times the capacity of the remaining eight horns found in the burial. The huge iron horn with its gold decorations hung directly over the "prince's" couch, suggesting that the ability to drink as well as dispense large quantities of alcohol was one of the defining characteristics of a ruler. In one of the best known of the Irish epic tales, Táin Bó Cúalnge, also called the "Cattle Raid of Cooley," the king spends a third of the day oc ól chorma, that is, "drinking cuirm," or beer. This is quite a lot of swigs from the royal drinking horn, calculated on an hourly basis! By drinking from magical horns unharmed, the protagonists in the numerous Irish, Welsh, and Scottish tales that deal with "drinking the feast" of sovereignty confirm their title to the kingship; the horns and other drinking equipment become the symbol of their right to rule.

The symbolic significance of the communal consumption of alcohol as a marker of elite social obligations and prerogatives is a constant element in pre-industrial northern Europe. The composition and meaning of elite drinking equipment appear to have gone through shifts from one structural option to another within the same transformational set, reproducing the basic structure in a novel cultural form. Even though the beverages and vessels may have changed through time—from a stoup of unhopped ale or spiced mead to imported Greek or Roman wine to distilled liquor in a glass cup—the material culture and its ideopolitical significance appear consistently in recognizable form.

See alsoHochdorf (vol. 1, part 1); Sutton Hoo (vol. 2, part 7).


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Bettina Arnold