Setting the Table: Archaeology and Food

Marc Cheeseman, Archaeologist/Master’s Student, UQ

In every culture large proportions of time are dedicated to food-related activities, but how can archaeologists investigate this relationship? And what can this information tell us about the development of modern Australia?


From the 19th century to World War I, minerals (mostly gold) made up roughly one third of yearly Australian exports. During this time, as the economy expanded with the spread of pastoralism, agriculture, and various gold rushes, large-scale immigration became necessary to satisfy the increasing demand for workers. Spurred on by these economic opportunities people arrived from many European countries, as well as America, and the southern provinces of China, all living and working together at various mining settlements in what must have been thoroughly difficult conditions. Despite this, most archaeological interest in gold mining sites, particularly in Queensland, has focussed on equipment and industrial activities, rather than the people who used that equipment. Recent excavations at Ravenswood, a gold mining town in northern Queensland that boomed in the 1860s/1870s and just prior to World War I, allow us to explore social aspects of an important period in the development of modern Queensland and Australia by looking at archaeological food remains; in this case animal bones.

Food and Identity?

So, how does food reflect culture and identity? And more importantly, for our purposes, how can we look at food archaeologically? Every individual needs the same basic nutrients: carbohydrates, vitamins, proteins and minerals. Across time and space, however, human societies have developed an impressively wide variety of approaches in order to fulfil these basic biological needs, and in utilising these approaches people have developed certain food preferences. To save time let’s call a given society’s food preferences, which are selected from a narrow range of available materials constrained by geography and historical circumstances, that society’s ‘cuisine’. Unfortunately there is still more to it. For a long time anthropologists have considered food to have very deep cultural significance; it is much more than a simple biological necessity. For a few brief examples, food emphasises certain times of the year by helping mark holidays and special occasions. Even our weekly (and daily!) routines are frequently punctuated by discussions within individual households, and/or larger social groups, that focus almost exclusively on the consumption of food (broadly defined to include alcoholic beverages). There is a reason that the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ holds so much meaning.

Food and Identity? …And Archaeology?

Notably, it is the repeated nature of these ‘food practices’ (behaviours associated with preparing and consuming food) that makes them archaeologically visible. People persistently create characteristic waste associated with their specific food preferences, or cuisine, and we can (sometimes) locate this rich deposit of decomposing data in order to help us understand the daily lives of people from past societies. Geography and history, however, are not the only influences that shape how an individual interacts with their society’s cuisine (there’s still more to it!). Other considerations need to be taken into account, such as an individual’s social class, gender, ethnicity, and age, among others. A rural farmer, for example, does not eat the same food as a wealthy merchant from the same society and region. Even if they are consuming the same animals and vegetables (their range of choices is somewhat limited by geography and history, of course), they would likely be eating different cuts of meat, and/or have different preparation methods. Nevertheless, there are ways of utilising this archaeological food waste to help us understand social differentiation (or ‘group identity’) in the past.

So How Is It Done?

For historical sites such as Ravenswood this involves bringing together a wide array of historical documents (advertisements and articles in newspapers, personal journals, photographs, etc.) and combining that information with the evidence taken directly from the ground: the bones. Other associated archaeological material, such as ceramics and bottles, can help paint a picture of the wider consumption patterns of sauces, drinks and preserved foods—they can also provide crucial information about when the material was used and subsequently thrown away.

For the bones themselves, many previous studies across the world have shown that analysing archaeological food remains can provide much more than a short list of animals that people were eating. For example, identifying which species appear in the skeletal evidence, and then comparing this group with the list of available species for the settlement (taken from historical documents), can tell us about dietary choices and how the people in the town were expressing their societal and group identity. Similarly, identifying which body parts of each species appear in the skeletal evidence (the complete skeleton, or only one leg, etc.) can tell us about the town’s butchering practices. This information can of course tell us about cuisine and social formation, but it can also provide economic and social information about how transport and infrastructure (government funded railways, bridges, etc.) impacted daily life. Additionally, identifying ‘age at death’ patterns for each species can offer insight into whether an animal population was raised mainly for their primary product (i.e. meat), or their secondary product (e.g. wool or milk).

Bringing Home the Bacon

Taken together, this kind of information can start to paint a more personal picture of what daily life was like for the people of Ravenswood, the majority of whom are almost completely absent from the historical records of the period. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the stories that come out of Ravenswood feed into the much larger and ongoing story of the development of modern Australia. Who are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? Historical archaeology at sites like Ravenswood can help answer these questions. There’s more than gold in them thar hills.

Further reading:

Lawrence, S. 2000 Dolly’s Creek : an archaeology of a Victorian goldfields community. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press

Orser, C.E. 2014 A primer on modern-world archaeology. Clinton Corners, New York: Eliot Werner Publications, Inc.

Pilcher, J.M. 2017 Food in world history (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Twiss, K. 2019 The archaeology of food: identity, politics, and ideology in the prehistoric and historic past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.