What are the archaeological signatures of such feasting?
Illustrate your essay with specific examples from the historical, ethnographical and archaeological record to support your argument.
A funerary feast is any meal partaken with others before, at, or after burial; these feasts are often elaborate and prolonged affairs, providing an occasion to demonstrate extravagance and gluttony (Hastings, 2003: 803). Funerary feasts have persevered throughout the course of history around the world. Upon excavating the site of funeral feasts in Kerch [Ukraine], fragments of kylikes pottery dating back to 480-460BC, a painted askos from 400-375BC and a large fish-plate were found (Zinko in Tsetskhladze, 2001: 295). Animal bones in the forecourts of megalithic tombs in Western Europe indicate funerary feasting (McIntosh, 2006: 274); and in central and north-east England, scattered animal bones and broken pots at the timber façade of earthen barrows containing corpses suggest feasting (Dyer, 1997: 40-41).
Eating in general has a sacramental aspect – food is presented to the gods, the hearth used for preparing food is regarded as the seat of the ancestral spirit, and the partaking of a meal with others creates a bond amongst the people that is also shared with the gods (Hastings, 2003: 801). Furthermore, food has been identified as one of the primary spheres of social interaction (Bray, 2003: 9) and as a core source of deriving one’s own identity as a social being (ibid.: 3). For example, for the hill tribes in Southeast Asia, ostentatious feasting reaffirms the social status of the dead and of his/her heirs (Kirsch, 1973: 15). Bray (2003: 9) highlights that food practices were an important feature of political strategies of early states, as well as a method of promoting allegiance and class distinction. Essentially, the act of sharing a meal is the epitome of ‘commensal politics’, whereby food and feasting are used to negotiate identity and power (Bray, 2003: 9). Taking the historical aspect of food-sharing in conjunction with ethnographical conduct towards the dead, the concept of the ‘funerary feast’ adopts a magnitude of significance. This essay explores historical, ethnographical and archaeological records to outline the importance of funerary feasting to the community.
From the outset, it is necessary to outline ways in which some cultures treat the dead. Archaeological evidence reveals that in early Chinese society, funerary feasts may have been angled to serve the purpose of enlisting the aid of the dead, as the recently-deceased were deemed to be more powerful allies than corporeal sentient beings (Nelson in Bray, 2003:65-66). Inscriptions on Shang oracle bones, bronze vessels from the Late Shang [ca. 1200-1045BC] and Western Zhou dynasty [1045-771BC] and texts from the succeeding Zhou dynasty all provide testimony that meat and wine were regularly offered to the ancestors (ibid.). Funerary feasts were held with the objective of engendering a new ancestral spirit that would aid its descendants in warfare and weather control, and foster health, wealth and longevity (ibid.).
In Ambae in the South Pacific, the funerary feast is a “competitive arena” whereby a landholder’s relatives offer gifts that contribute to stating a claim over the deceased’s land; and it is believed that the spirit of the dead person hovers at the top of trees, watching this exchange of gifts in a ceremony which “dislocates” the dead person from the place that was integral to him/her when alive (Rodman, in Low & Lawrence-Zuniga, 2003: 217). Among the Kafirs of the Hindu Kush, funeral feasts for high rank-holders took place for several days while the deceased’s body was “sitting in state” in his chair of honour upon the bedstead, adorned with all the regalia of his achievements; and it was anticipated that families of Great Men would spend up to three times the minimum amount of expenses and time ‘prescribed’ as the norm for obsequies (Klimburg, 1999: 97-98). In this case, as in many other cultures, the community is integral to the feast; public spectacle is necessary to demonstrate the deceased’s importance.
Funerary feasts sometimes serve the purpose of uniting a community, transforming into a political or corporate event. Johnson (1912: 319) quotes Brand in relating that at least 100 black cattle and 300 sheep were slain “for the entertainment of the company” at a Highland lord’s funeral in 1725. A historical example of ‘entertaining the company’ is the indigenous North Americans’ Huron Feast of the Dead, which took place approximately every twelve years and was meant to unite all the people of Huronia, and foreign nations were also invited (Greer, 2000: 61-68). Brébeuf’s 1636 account of the Feast expounds upon the intricate orchestrated pageantry of the event, recounting how families take their dead from cemeteries, dress them in their finest robes, and carry them on their shoulders to the village where the common grave is, renewing and re-enacting their grief as on the day of the funeral (ibid.).
Apart from the act of the funerary feast itself, one should consider what is involved in the feast. In ancient Christianity, wheat was considered to be a sign of resurrection, and noted as far back as 1888 in Lancashire [UK], a sheaf of wheat was sent to relatives of the deceased – which may have to do with the Scriptural mention of “corn of wheat” (Johnson, 1912: 318). Johnson (ibid.) also notes that at a modern Greek funeral, men carried parboiled wheat to deposit over the corpse. Also, charred wheat and corn were found in connection with a Romano-British grave and skeletons assumedly belonging to the Roman period; and corn, berries and flowers were discovered to be food offerings at a grave site in the recesses of the Pamirs (ibid.)
Thus it can be concluded that funerary feasting does not only have to do with the living feasting over their dead, but also with the foods offered to the dead that may have particular significance. Furthermore, whereas some cultures go to great expenses to produce a funerary feast to ‘entertain the company’, others tailor the feast to suit the deceased. In early medieval Gaul, the miscellany of funerary display suggests that people were not subject to a single generic combination of mortuary artefacts despite their sex, age, ethnicity or affiliation to religion or social status (Noble, 2006: 195). For instance, some people were buried with foodstuffs they favoured in their lifetime, such as a woman and boy’s grave that contained date pits, hazelnuts and walnuts (Noble, 2006: 202).
Another significant point is the economical aspect of the funerary feast. Pearson (in Spriggs, 1984: 64) highlights the fact that funeral feasts and grave goods may be agricultural surplus, and the food sacrificed, destroyed or distributed amongst the populace can be considered as wasteful economic consumption since these goods could have been better used. Furthermore, often the construction of monuments dedicated to the dead involve a highly labour-intensive undertaking (ibid.) Thus the economic aspect is intertwined with the other factors of culture and religion (ibid.)
Nevertheless, the most notable aspect of feasting is its lavishness. It is essential to consider the reason behind this extreme expense to the family of the deceased – though the superficial intention is to honour the dead, the bespoke purpose of any feast is to impress those attending it. The goal is to create alliances and/or to foster closeness among the attendees, and to this end, it is common to encourage licentious behaviour, intoxication and chaos (Metcalf & Huntington, 1991). While other social pretexts may lend to the manipulation of emotions such as weddings or other gatherings that draw a large crowd, a funeral is perhaps the most idyllic setting, precisely as the intentions are not quite as transparent as other planned joyous occasions (Hayden, 2001). People offer support, thanks, and express warm emotions to each other, in a social context that fosters reaffirmation of old alliances and cultivation of new ones whilst displaying the success and wealth of the family of the deceased (ibid.). In addition, not only are funerary feasts beneficial to the family, but also to the groups to which they belong – for example, a funeral of a politician or a social activist provides an opportunity for the group to gather and perhaps put forward their agenda. Essentially, feasting is about the “conspicuous consumption of commodities” and the context of death provides an ideal forum for competing forces to ‘outdo’ each other (Pearson in Spriggs, 1984: 64).
The ostentatious spectacle of the funerary feast can be described as a heteropia, in Foucault’s sense of the word, which is a sort of illusory space that is both mythic and real (Foucault in Leach, 1997). Rodman (in Low & Lawrence-Zuniga, 2003: 217) stipulates that funerary feasts can be considered as heteropias that “mark and contest boundaries between the living and the dead, between places, and between the conflicting interest of different people”. Witoszek (1987: 206) points out that the most interesting feature of a funeral is sometimes not the signified but the signifier, “the very use of the funeral ceremony as a symbolic vehicle to transmit a message to be deciphered by the community”. To expound upon this point, as McLuhan (1964) says: “the medium is the message”; the case of the funerary feast exemplifies this: death is not the conveyor of profound change in society, but the way in which death is treated – the medium of celebrating/mourning death – tells us a great deal about the society’s beliefs.
To sum up, families belonging to various cultures all over the world go to extreme costs, even incurring great debt, to host lavish feasts in honour of the deceased, and they have done so for centuries. Archaeological signatures of funerary feasting are present and multitudinous around the world, reflecting the historical and ethnographical record of both outdated and present communities, societies, cultures and beliefs. In primitive societies, much of these festivities over the dead had to do with beliefs in the ‘life of the dead’, and for this purpose feasts often included sacrificial offerings to the deceased or to spirits (Johnson, 1912: 318; Nelson in Bray, 2003). In more modern contexts, families still bury their dead with accompanying feasting or a wake. Also, it is now common, particularly in first-world countries, to invest in funeral or burial insurance.
Pearson (in Spriggs, 1984: 64) points out that the key aspect to studying the ‘funerary feast’ is that the dead do not bury themselves, hence the “pomp and ceremony” connected to the feast will reflect on the surviving relatives, and therefore it is their decision whether or not to use the funeral as a “platform for acting out the social beliefs which they believe in”. For example, a king can be buried as a commoner to demonstrate that all men are equal before the deities, as was done in Saudi Arabia (ibid.). A more modern example is that a person may stipulate his burial wishes and bequeathed possessions in his will, but his family may choose not to follow them.
The irony inherent in the funerary feast is that all of the lavishness is done in the name of deceased individuals, who are incapable of conveying gratitude or reciprocating such displays for the ones who undertake the expense. Therein lies the essence of the funerary feast – if the dead cannot bear witness, then who is the feast for? It can be argued that the feast has very little to do with the dead, and much more to do with the community involved with the event. Hayden (2001: 3) draws a parallel between funerary feasting and ecology: ostentatious displays such as moose antlers, peacock tails and a fish’s bright colours are disparate from subsistence purposes, and used solely to impress other animals for either mating or alliance purposes; similarly, the goal of ostentatious funerary feasting is the same: to attract other individuals into “relationships… beneficial to those with the displays”. In conclusion, the funerary feast is much more than the superficial notion of honouring the dead. Any funeral, and the accompanying festivities, immediately summons an added quality of power: the power of the survivors to choose how to treat the dead, and the power of the deceased’s family to use the event to manipulate public emotion in their favour.