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9 Eating and Drinking
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Sharing food and drink has been at the heart of many celebrations across the world, including formal events and religious rituals. It also plays a major role in many of our most common daily activities with our families and friends. What people eat is part of what they are and aspire to be, but it is not just the actual foods and drinks that are important – the wide range of objects and vessels we use to prepare and consume are also integral to being human. Thousands of items throughout the Museum are mute evidence for a global history of food and drink, and it is hardly surprising that many were intended to express the wealth and importance of their owners.

Most of the objects in this chapter were made for special occasions, whether feasts, major celebrations or religious rites and ceremonies. Sharing food and drink between worshipers or with the gods and ancestors is a common feature of many religions. The objects that more than any other visually sum up the Bronze Age in China are the cast bronze vessels of the Shang period, similar to the gui in this chapter. These vessels were made in specific shapes for ritual offerings of food and wine. Similarly, the silver vessels of the Water Newton hoard from England may be some of the earliest objects used in Christian worship to have survived from the Roman empire.

9 Eating and Drinking


Blue glass sugar bowl


Other objects were made for secular meals and feasts, and examples from different cultures show the many ways that serving food to quests and relations, friends and enemies has been of great social and political importance. This significance is made clear through the often extraordinary objects that were created to enhance these meals, whether to serve the food and drink or to act as complex objects to hold the eye – a feature described by one expert as ‘a technology of enchantment’.

Evidence of this can be found in objects as diverse as the great dish from Mildenhall, Blacas ewer, Basse Yutz flagons and medieval French royal cup, though their shapes vary because of the practical functions they performed.

Most of the objects in this chapter are elaborate pieces used by the powerful and wealthy. They are made of exotic materials such as gold or silver; many required long hours of skilled work to produce. Huge objects such as the great dish from Mildenhall have understandably become star objects in the Museum, but the collections also contain many thousands of more mundane examples of bowls and plates, cooking vessels and grinding stones fashioned over the last 10,000 years in all parts of the world. The shapes, colours and decoration of the thousands of pots on display in the Museum vary widely to suit their functions. These everyday items can easily be overlooked in the galleries compared to the extravagant pieces used for great occasions, but these ordinary utensils provide the historical and material evidence for our human history.

9 Eating and Drinking


Basse Yutz flagon




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