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The Contextual Cat: Human–Animal Relations and Social Meaning in Anglo-Saxon England

By Kristopher Poole

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The growing popularity of relational approaches to agency amongst archaeologists has led to increased attention on the specific contexts of interaction between humans and their material worlds. Within such viewpoints, non-humans are perceived as agents in their own right and placed on an equal footing with humans, with both acting to generate social categories in past cultures. However, to date, the focus of these interpretative models has been overwhelmingly directed towards inanimate objects. Animals are generally absent from these discussions, despite their ubiquity in past societies and the frequently central roles they held within daily lives and social relations. Moreover, living animals are set apart from material culture because, like humans, they are usually aware of their environs and are capable of physically responding to them. This ability to ‘act back’ would have made human–animal interactions extremely dynamic and thus offers different conceptual challenges to archaeologists than when faced with objects. This paper demonstrates that the notion of performativity, combined with understanding of animals themselves, can help to comprehend these relations. It does so by focusing on one particular species, the domestic cat, in relation to Anglo-Saxon England. The characteristics and behaviour of these animals affected the ways in which humans perceived and interacted with them, so that just one individual cat could be categorised in a range of different ways. The classification of animals was thus just as fluid, if not more so, as that of objects and highlights the need to incorporate the former into reconstructions of the social in archaeological research.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Publication Title Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory
Volume 22
Issue 3
Pages 857-882
DOI 10.1007/s10816-014-9208-9
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. agency
  2. Animal roles
  3. Cats
  4. Classification
  5. Human-animal relationships
  6. Mammals
  7. open access
  8. performance
  9. United Kingdom
  10. Zooarchaeology
  1. open access