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Pet-Keeping and Animal Sacrifice as Seen Economically and Archaeologically

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« on: November 28, 2010, 05:14:15 pm »

Pet-Keeping and Animal Sacrifice as Seen Economically and Archaeologically
By Julie 23/11/2010 19:35:00

Pet-keeping in antiquity was a common practice. How the animals were treated can often be seen archaeologically.

By most modern standards, household pets such as cats and dogs are looked at as companion animals. It can be assumed that some people in the past acquired a similar affection to household or working animals.  A companion animal is generally valued as being able to bring its owner a sense of loyalty, comfort, security and friendship.  Aside from being strictly companions, pets may additionally provide a household function such as dogs providing security for the family and household and cats catch and kill small, destructive pests.  Companion animals need not always be soft and cuddly housemates and dogs and cats were not the only animals valued as pets. In some medieval and post-medieval farming societies, cattle and sheep were regarded as companion animals in life but at the time of their death, they quickly were converted from pet-status to food commodity (Harris 1986, 177-178).

Historical evidence surrounding the keeping of pets clearly shows that animals were prized not only for their household duties, but some, for more non-practical reasons.  Some companion animals came to symbolize the status of a person or family.  Lap dogs were in fashion in the early seventeenth century, as they are today. The tiny dogs were a sure sign of wealth and status as evident by the sheer uselessness of the dog.  Lapdogs generally do not catch and kill household pests, could not secure the home of its owner or protect its family from intruders. Aside from being little more than a vocal alarm, lapdogs have virtually no other practical purpose.  In Thomas’ (1983) work, it is stated that, “The Stewarts in particular, were so obsessed with them that in 1617 James I was accused of loving his dogs more than his subjects.”  Other not-so-cuddly animals were often kept as non-practical companion animals or symbols of wealth. Exotic birds and monkeys among other unusual critters within the society were also clues to the statuses of their owners.  Archaeologically, trade routes and bone evidence give clues to the animals imported and exported by a community.  North African tortoises were traded as far back as the seventeenth century (Thomas 2005, 101) and the acquisition or collecting of strange, unusual or non-local animals signifies the elevated status of an individual (Thomas 2005, 101).

Archaeologically, animal remains often show evidence of mistreatment, cruelty and other inhumane acts toward the animal in life.  Numerous broken rib and jaw bone remains of dogs provide unmistakable evidence of abused animals. Contrasting evidence also shows animals being taken care of when wounded, or treated with respect at death. If the dog was not particularly useful during its life, one must wonder what its purpose was. Surely, a dog with an amputated leg or other deformity was not furry companion.

The zooarchaeological-economic link is revealed again through the acknowledgment of the abundance of reasons for the sacrifice of animals throughout history. Animals have been sacrificed for seemingly endless reasons.  People in the past and also the present choose animals based on many factors; age, sex, size and association to a certain god or goddess are just a few.  The reasons why people sacrifice animals at all is plentiful as well.  Secular, as well as non-secular reasons including honouring the dead, ensuring the continuation of life, providing good luck, enhancing fertility of people, animals as well as crops, keeping the rain god, the sun god or any number of other gods satisfied are all only a fraction of the reasons why.  Reasons, whether economically charged or not; are still valid answers to the question “Why?”  Zooarchaeologically, the economic, as well as the non-economic reasons can be uncovered.  Lauwerier (2002) discusses the economic impact of different types of animal sacrifice.  Which is more detrimental to the economy of a society, the loss of one horse’s meat, or the loss of a few chicken’s meat? One may immediately answer with the horse meat of course, as a horse provides many hundreds of kilograms of meat where as a chicken may only offer one or two.  That answer would be argued as incorrect if the society never or rarely consumes horse meat.  In Roman times, horses were used as work animals, in battle, and as transport; but, as today, horses were considered comrades (Lauwerier 2002, 70).  Additionally, the consumption of horse meat might be considered taboo. Ritual consumption, however, is often the culprit for a horse or other animal ‘comrade’ to be eaten.  Rituals can be economic or non-economic in nature; often they are both.  Suovitaurtilia, the sacrifice of the same numbers of sheep, cattle and pigs in a single ritual, was performed either for the commemoration of the dead or to purify a field used for agricultural purposes and (Wilkens 2002, 73).  The commemoration of the dead appears have no economic motive; the purification of the field before seed planting or harvest-time, most certainly does.

The keeping of pets and the sacrifice of animals adds to and often enhances the economic standing of a society whether it is intended or not.  Archaeologically, these actions can be seen, establishment of the practice can be made and therefore, it can and should be examined and scrutinized.


Harris, M., 1986. Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture, Allen & Unwin, London

Lauwerier, R., 2002. The economic and non-economic animal: Roman depositions and offerings. In Sharyn Jones O’Day, Wim Van Neer and Anton Ervynck (eds.), Behavior Behind Bones-The zooarchaeology of ritual, religion, status and identity. Proceedings of the 9th ICAZ Conference, Durham. Oxford 66-72

Renfrow, C., n.d. Medieval and Renaissance Food: Sources, Recipes, and Articles. URL: ( Accessed 10 September, 2008

Rumpolt, M., 1604 Ein new Kochbuch. Germany (taken from accessed 21, September 2008

Thomas, K., 1983. Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800, Allen Lane, London,

Thomas, R., 2005. Perceptions versus reality: changing attitudes toward pets in medieval and post-medieval England.  In Just Skin and Bones? New Perspectives on Human-Animal Relations in the Historical Past.  BAR International Series 1410, 95-104

Wilkens, B., 2002. Roman suovitaurilia and its predecessors. In Sharyn Jones O’Day, Wim Van Neer and Anton Ervynck (eds.), Behavior Behind Bones-The zooarchaeology of ritual, religion, status and identity. Proceedings of the 9th ICAZ Conference, Durham. Oxford 73-76


Julie (Robinson) St. Jean
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