Medieval Fishing Weir from Ireland. Source: Google Map

Cod, Herring and Medieval Sea Fishing

Around the year 1000, Marine Fishing came to play a significant role supplying the growing population cheap and nutritious protein. New book gathers the results of decades of research.

Cod and Herring: the Archaeology and History of Medieval Sea Fishing.
Edited by James H. Barrett and David C. Orton.
Oxbow Books, 2016.
ISBN 978 178570 239 6


For more than 25 years, the medieval archaeologists, James Barrett, has been studying the ephemeral remains of fish-bones found in excavations in London as well as the rest of the British Isles. During this time, he has been able to not only conduct numerous studies but also successfully gather a team of archaeologists, historians, and scientists, who have contributed to the project: documenting the human exploitation of marine Fish from 500 – 1500 CE.

In a new book from Oxbow, he recently edited a total of 21 chapters, each presented by one of his collaborators; and each outlining the main results of his or her work. However, as the people who have contributed obviously are familiar with the work of each other, the book reads seamlessly.

Focus is on Northern Europe and the fisheries that exploited the North Atlantic Ocean, including the Irish, North, and Baltic seas as well as the waters off Arctic Norway.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part entitled “Perspectives from History and Settlement Archaeology” holds presentation of the different geographical regions and areas: the Baltic, Britain, Norway, Iceland, and Ireland each gets separate treatment. Focus is on such questions as volume of fishing and the organization of trade, but less the material culture

The second part, entitled “Perspectives from Zoo-archaeology and Stable Isotope Analyses” contains chapters, which present the numerous anyles, which have been conducted on fish bone assemblages in Estonia, York, Poland, Denmark, and Belgium.

This may sound a bit confusing, but luckily James Barrett has taken the time to provide us with both a general introduction which sums up the research questions, as well as the methodological and technical possibilities; and a summary or conclusion, in which the many disparate results and conclusions are cleverly brought together, documenting the so-called fishing revolution between 850 – 1050 CE, when marine off-shore fishing became increasingly long-distance – and important for the growth of cities.

Curiously enough, the book is somewhat sparing when it somes to the study of the parallel development of shipping and fishing technology during this period. It is touched upon, but not in a wider perspective. Also the late-medieval politics concerning regulative mechanisms are left slightly orphaned. Perhaps the next publication will provide us with a more full introduction to the material culture of fishing?

However, as James Barret writes in his introduction, the studies of ancient DNA are only beginning to set their mark. More is thus sure to come. We cannot wait…

Karen Schousboe