Feeding Colonial Boston: A Zooarchaeological Study. David B. Landon. Historical Archaeology Volume 30, Number 1, 1996, Journal of the Society for Historical Archaeology. vii+153 pp. $12.50 (paper). ISSN 0440-9213.

Reviewed by Barry W. Baker, Department of Anthropology, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843 USA

While zooarchaeology has received increasing attention by North American prehistorians over the past 25 years, less emphasis has been placed on understanding the role of animals in historic contexts. Landon’s study of faunal remains from colonial Boston provides an excellent example of the potential of historic faunal samples and the innovative methods that can be used to study them.

His analysis, constituting an entire issue of the journal Historical Archaeology, draws from four zooarchaeological assemblages from Massachusetts dating from ca. 1630-1825. Two of the assemblages were from sites within Boston, while two others were from farms located outside the city. Landon focuses on questions regarding the provisioning and distribution of meat within colonial Boston. He questions whether those animals supplied to the city from the rural areas represent a surplus, or market oriented production. The overall approach is refreshing and represents a departure from typical North American historic faunal analyses.

Landon takes a broad foodways approach, combined with innovative methodology and technical data collection (tooth sectioning and cementum increment analysis). He moves away from the typical emphasis in historical archaeology on ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Rather than focusing on a simple comparison of these urban and rural assemblages, Landon deals instead with the interrelationships of these areas to better understand how meat moved from the farms to the city. Through seasonality studies based on tooth sectioning, he identifies seasonal cycles of meat availability within the city, an issue more commonly addressed for rural than urban settings. In contrast to many historical analyses that focus on the role of goods moving from the city to the rural areas, Landon turns this issue on its head, examining instead the role of rural production for urban consumption. This approach, emphasizing the interplay between rural production and urban consumption, is one that has great potential for future studies, and works well in Landon’s study.

One of the strengths of Landon’s work is his attention to detail. Based on his dissertation research, this work would have been much less meaningful and convincing had it been presented in the format of a shorter journal article. It represents an excellent model of zooarchaeological methods, and illustrates the benefits of pursuing multiple lines of inquiry in zooarchaeology. Landon is able to maintain this level of detail while still keeping sight of the bigger picture. He moves through and beyond the cautionary tale of many zooarchaeological reports to come full circle; critiquing approaches that are less useful, as well as drawing from those that are productive. He never tries to force the data, acknowledging when results are ambiguous.

Historical archaeology, of course, has the advantage of insight from written records. Landon is able to combine his biological and taphonomic analyses with such interesting discussions as who lived at the four sites being studied. We also learn that live goats were banned from Boston in 1642 because of their destructiveness, an important fact when attempting to learn the source of meats for the city. Landon also notes 17th and 18th century recipes showing that pigs heads were consumed, thus emphasizing that their cranial bones should not necessarily be regarded as butchering waste. These historical documents help provide a clearer picture of how animals were used in colonial Boston.

Among his conclusions, Landon convincingly argues that meat entering Boston represented rural surplus, rather than animals raised specifically for urban markets. This also suggests that the availability of meat in the city was influenced by the rural agricultural cycle. That is, different animals were available for consumption at different seasons of the year. Once within the city, exchange and distribution was relatively unspecialized. Meat portions entering the city and households were typically large, with further butchering occurring once the meat entered the home. Patterns of butchery between the rural and urban sites were very similar.

Major changes in this system of provisioning began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when some farmers began shifting their emphasis toward market production. This coincided with the expansion and centralization of urban markets. The amount of home butchering in the urban setting decreased, while new carcass division and exchange patterns emerged.

Overall, this is a detailed, well executed study showing the multifaceted potential of faunal collections for addressing broad questions of economic systems in a historic context. It will be of interest to a wide range of archaeologists and historians and should be required reading for anyone working with historic North American faunal samples.