The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cataloging Booze

I am reviewing a report that describes the excavation of a historic-era site in Los Angeles County.  The reports authors have divided the description of the artifacts found into several categories based on the cataloging typology used by the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA.  These categories include Structural Artifacts (items such as nails, parts of beams, electrical bits and bobs that are part of the structure of a building), Domestic Artifacts (objects that are not part of a house's structure, but belong to a household - utensils, furniture parts, medicine bottles, etc.), Activity-Related Artifacts (items from activities not related to structures or the day-to-day functioning of a household, including work tasks as well as entertainment),and Personal Artifacts (including articles of clothing, children's toys, and other items likely to belong to an individual rather than a household).

A sub-category of Personal Artifacts is Personal Indulgences, and a sub category of Personal Indulgences is Alcohol-Related Artifacts.

This seems very, very odd to me.

While the solitary consumption of alcohol is, of course, nothing new, the assumption that artifacts related to alcohol consumption belong in the sub-category of Personal Indulgences and not the category of Domestic Artifacts or Activity-Related Artifacts is rather odd.  Certainly, alcohol has long been a contentious substance, and demonization of it is no more new than solitary consumption of it, but while ambivalence towards alcohol may be an old phenomenon, the particular notion that it is specifically a personal indulgence more than something for household or entertainment use seems to smack somewhat of us projecting our particular flavor of ambivalence onto the people of the past.

Use of alcohol at family meals is not uncommon across the world.  While alcohol consumption by children is often (though not always) limited by social practices, it has historically been quite common in many cultures (including many that have occupied the United States) for wine, beer, or other alcoholic beverages to form an important part of daily meals.  Far from being the "demon liquor" of personal vice, this was simply a standard part of household provisions.  And many of these drinking customs continued even well after their practical causes (in those cases where practical causes existed) became irrelevant. 

What's more, anthropologists have long acknowledged the role of alcohol in social gatherings.  Alcohol has long been, and of course continues to be, a significant component of social gatherings and entertaining.  So, it's odd that alcohol paraphernalia, is not included amongst the domestic debris, would not be placed in the same category as entertainment-related artifacts.

And, of course, there's the fact that throughout the 19th and early 20th century, consumable alcohol was often kept as a medical supply (it still is for some purposes, though not as frequently as in the past).  Meaning, once again, that there is a potential domestic use of alcohol in addition to meals and entertaining.

It's worth noting that much of the anti-alcohol propaganda of the late 19th and early 20th century focused on beer halls, saloons, and taverns as places of evil (hence prohibition, which was far more strict regarding drinking establishments than personal ownership and consumption), while much of our current worries about alcohol focus on the solitary alcoholic, the person who drinks alone and can't get through the day without his flask.  I suspect that the placement of alcohol-related artifacts in this catalog system is indicative of our current attitudes.


Evan Davis said...

Interesting, though it makes me wonder if there is truly an objective classification system. For example: Would the "Elk Lodge" qualify as Domestic? What about a man who has more parties than the average folk, would his home be (based on remnant evidence) classified as a tavern? What about a permanent settlement on a common trade route that has a designated area for travelers to camp? How would that shelter be classified?

If you were allowed to reclassify Alcohol Artifacts, would someone at some later date accuse you of bias based on early 21st century scientific subculture? Semantics are fun.

Anthroslug said...

It's a good point. There is no such thing as a purely objective way to identify the materials. It is fascinating, though, to see how the cultural biases of one point in time impact the way that another is reconstructed. It's a reminder that we are still the same humans who were mis-applying principles int he past, and that realization can keep you humble (well, humbler, anyway).