Consuming creatures

Wooden model of a man ploughing with oxenAnimals provide humans with much more than food. Their bones and sinews can be used to make tools, their hides and feathers to make clothes. Their waste products provide fertiliser for crops and, in some parts of the world, materials for building.

Large animals provide power to drive machines and transport people and goods. Animals are a source of wealth and the ownership and control of animals demonstrates power.

Over thousands of years, human misuse of power through overuse of animal resources or destruction of their habitats, has led to the extinction of many species of animal. However, the consumption and use of animals is still an economic necessity in many parts of the world.


The 'Ram in a Thicket'

In the ancient Near East, goats and sheep were among the earliest animals to be domesticated, around 10,000 years ago. They were an everyday feature of life and were commonly depicted by artists who lived in agricultural communities in, for example, ancient Greece and medieval Europe.

Wild goats are sometimes shown as prey in hunting scenes from the Bronze Age on the island of Crete. They are now nearly extinct on the island due to hunting, though a small number still live in the more remote mountain districts.

Gold pendant in the form of a goat

With its distinctive long curving horns, the goat was a favourite subject in Minoan art. They were sometimes shown in the rocky, mountainous terrain that was their natural home. Minoan religion included worship at mountain-top shrines known as peak sanctuaries, and the wild goat seems to have been associated with such high and holy places.


In ancient Egypt, models showing various stages in the production of food were placed in wealthy burials of the Middle Kingdom (about 2040-1750 BC) to guarantee that the deceased would have food for eternity. These models show how animals were used in farming.

The first stage was ploughing, which in Egypt took place when the flood waters of the annual inundation receded, leaving a thick layer of fertile silt over the whole of the flood plain. The loose soil required only a simple plough drawn by two cattle to create a furrow. The main crops were wheat and barley for making bread and beer, and flax, for linen, rope and matting and they were often sown in front of the cattle, so they would trample it into the soil.

Cattle were expensive in Ancient Egypt, so it is unlikely that beef was an everyday foodstuff, but it was represented as one of the main components of food offerings for the deceased. Models showing the slaughter of cattle for this purpose were placed in tombs, and represented on offering tables in wall paintings.Stone seal Early Colony Period

Trade and transport

This brown stone seal has a base shaped like a lion's paw, while the handle is in the form of a small horned animal with eyes inlaid with lapis lazuli. The design on the base is a pattern of animal and bird heads.

The seal dates to a period when there was extensive trade throughout Anatolia. We have good evidence for this. Around 1920 BC, merchants from the city of Ashur on the river Tigris established a trading colony, or karum, at the foot of the huge city mound of Kültepe in central Anatolia. Cuneiform tablets written by these merchants illuminate the political and social situation in the region. Tin and textiles were carried on donkeys from Ashur through the mountains into Anatolia where taxes were paid to the local princes and everything (including the donkeys it seems) was exchanged for local gold and silver.

Although animals started to be domesticated much earlier, horse-riding did not begin until around 6000 years ago and probably started in central Asia. The ability of the horse to cover great distances at speed transformed warfare and tradePainted clay and wood figure of a horse from Astana, China/Tang Dynasty. It also gave those peoples who had succeeded in capturing and training wild horses a considerable advantage.

Early horse-riders rode bare-back (without a saddle) but by the third century BC saddles began to be used.

A Chinese painted clay and wood model of a horse, which dates from the mid-eighth century AD, has a magnificently embroidered saddle-blanket and remnants of silk indicate where stirrups would have hung. The model, found in a tomb, is representative of a network of communications along the Northern Silk Route in central Asia.

More information about objects featured here (from top)

Search highlights

There are over 4,000 highlight objects to explore

Related objects