Case Study: Cups that cheer and cups that intoxicate: tea and whisky

With food, drink and drugs, the archaeologist finds not the product itself but the material culture associated with its manufacture and consumption. In the modern period the consumption of drinks is mostly evident in the vessels used to transport, store, prepare and serve them and in traces of their manufacture. Tea was an imported commodity which nevertheless came to have a central role in structuring social interactions. Scotch whisky is also famous around the world, and was consumed at home too, although not always acquired from legitimate, duty-paying distilleries  (see Given 2004 for a discussion of illicit distilling and the ScARF Case Study: Archaeologies of tax evasion).

In the past archaeologists have sometimes preferred to look at the consumption of food and drink in terms of economically rational decisions, ‘optimising’ strategies for the ingestion of calories and the fulfilment of nutritional needs. But the contrast between whisky and tea consumption demonstrates that eating and drinking are social, cultural and ideological acts. Choosing to drink tea, rather than whisky, wine or beer, could be based on class identity or aspiration (and tea wares were produced to emphasise the respectability of this choice). The display of tea wares, as Webster (1999) has noted for the Hebrides, signals adherence to a set of cultural values. The consumption of whisky, by contrast, has had associations with a different kind of identity – possibly an anti-authority one, certainly a more masculine kind of Scottishness.

The consumption of alcohol or of non-alcoholic drink is meaningful and archaeologists are well-placed to examine those meanings because of their traditional concern for context.

Return to Section 6.3 Consumption