Archaeological remains of weddings?

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

This Weekly Ponder posted originally on 29 April 2011, the date of the wedding of Prince William of Wales and Catherine Elizabeth Middleton in London.

Weddings are important events to individuals, families, society, and, sometimes, the media.

The socially and legally sanctioned uniting of a couple as the basis for a nuclear family is common around the world; we typically refer to this event as a wedding. Wedding ceremonies may be religious, and have legal consequences; they vary widely. Often, there are physical symbols of weddedness that mark one’s status in daily life after the event. In some cultures, the married state is encoded in your clothing or hairstyle; in our culture, people commonly wear wedding rings.

What evidence do weddings leave archaeologically?

Even such a high-profile and well-attended wedding as that of Prince William and Kate—what is the archaeological evidence of it? Clearly, there will be a huge digital legacy of the event—including an official website and a Wikipedia entry—and considerable archival information, but what about evidence in the dirt?

Across many cultures, weddings are group events, and require the marshaling of quantities of food to sustain attendees. Archaeologists consider weddings to be one of many sociocultural events likely to trigger feasting.

Wedding cake with yellow roses 2003

Feasting may leave archaeological evidence. Exceptionally large cooking fires and containers for food and drink, and the construction or use of a special (large) building or structure associated with the event may leave distinctive remains.

Of course, even if there’s archaeological evidence for feasting, unless there’re specific artifacts or patterns of artifacts that have been linked to wedding ceremonies, archaeologists cannot tell if the feasting was to celebrate a wedding.

Feasting and weddings commonly also are settings for sociopolitical jockeying. Certainly, it takes some social standing to assemble the labor, food, and other goods necessary to host a feast, or a wedding attended by more than a few people. Often, hosts—and sometimes guests—engage in status displays, where they use material items to demonstrate their prosperity or socioeconomic and political position within the community.

In the case of the wedding of Prince William of Wales and Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, we know of considerable pomp, a huge number of attendees and celebrants, and abundant memorabilia—as well as feasting. But what are the archaeological remains of even this mega wedding? Are there different archaeological remains from weddings held in your community? What are they? What about weddings in other cultures?