The Archaeozoology of Luxury

What is luxury?

This is not something that can be easily defined, particularly when dealing with food. Just having enough could be viewed as a luxury, particularly when dealing with the problem of acquiring it. Composing one’s menu according to the rules of gastronomy, fashion or the desire to show off could be called a luxury. What is luxurious for some can be perceived as a basic need for others. Luxury is a relative term.

The dictionary definition of luxury as a state or condition is: ‘a condition of abundance or great ease and comfort’. When referring to an item, it is ‘something adding to pleasure or comfort but not absolutely necessary’. In terms of food or diet, this would therefore encompass all ingredients above the level of basic needs. However, such a definition is hardly useful within the context of archaeozoology. For a variety of reasons, significant numbers of people believe that all animal products can be viewed as non-essential. Whilst from a strictly medical point of view this may not be entirely correct, the fact remains that they believe it and behave accordingly. Others, however, view their daily portion of meat as a basic need.

Perceptions of basic needs and luxuries have also changed through time. Products once regarded as luxuries, e.g. chocolate, coffee or tea, are now treated as staple parts of the western diet.

Another relative term is affluence: ‘the abundance of property’. This could simply mean a general state of well-being. Luxury will, therefore, be treated here as something more than affluence, a state in which one can enjoy the consumption of special food products, accessible only to a very small part of society.

Food consumption can be divided into four categories:

Level 1: what is physiologically needed to survive, be active and grow
Level 2: what is considered to be a basic need by a person, a group or a society above the level of strictly physiological needs
Level 3: affluence: the consumption of goods beyond basic and considered needs
Level 4: luxury: the consumption, beyond the level of affluence, of goods that are special, limited in supply, difficult to procure or very expensive for other reasons

How, though, do we recognise luxuries in the archaeozooological record?

Rarities often represent the best examples of luxury foods, simply because they are generally more expensive. This can be caused by their low abundance, people having to spend a lot of time and energy to procure them, or simply their rarity. As with art, the price of a product is often determined by what one is prepared to pay for it. Moreover, a meal can impress simply because of the price paid for it, rather than because of its taste.

Imported goods can be luxuries in that, even when they are abundant at their place of origin, they are rare at the place of consumption. Transport costs and limited availability make these goods especially expensive. Obviously, however, imported goods that become available in large quantities become cheaper and thus lose their luxury status.

Luxury items can also consist of products subject to restrictive rights, e.g. sumptuary laws, that make them available only to a limited part of society.

In general, a diet with much variety can be called luxurious because it will contain items that are not strictly optimal in terms of the ratio of costs versus nutritional value. Another possible characteristic of a luxury diet is the selection of the prime quality parts of an animal, or derived from animals killed before their optimal slaughter age. Given the loss for the producer, this latter makes the product more expensive. The same is true for animals killed outside the optimal slaughtering season.

Luxury items are not always easy to detect, however. All archaeological information contains bias. Certain animal food products leave no remains that survive in most soil types e.g. meat or fish that has been filleted and de-boned before being brought onto site. Preservation can hide information about a species as a whole, e.g. the lamprey with its cartilaginous skeleton. Recovery techniques can have even more severe consequences, e.g. whether the site was sieved or not.

It will always be difficult to identify luxury items at a single site if the contextual data is insufficient. A safer approach is to compare the data from a number of sites, dating from the same period, belonging to the same economy. This is not a weak method of analysis. Luxury is, as previously stated, a relative concept. It cannot be studied on the basis of a single find collection or even a single class of sites.

Reference: Ervynck, A., Van Neer, W., Huster-Plogmann, H and Schibler, J. 2003. Beyond affluence: the zooarchaeology of luxury. World Archaeology 34 (3): 428-441

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