Fiskevollen. Maihagen Museum 2022 © Schousboe

Medieval Fishing at Lake Mesna in Norway

Large permanent fishing trap discovered near Lillehammer sheds light on the freshwater fishing methods in the Norwegian Middle Ages

Drawing of how a Katissa works © Nosk Skogsmuseum
Drawing of how a Katissa works © Nosk Skogsmuseum

”Katisse” is an old Scandinavian word used to name a type of fishing trap used in the lakes and streams in Norway and Sweden in the Middle Ages. The word is known from Old Swedish and in Swedish dialects “Kattisa, Katsa or Katsy” as well as in Finnish (Katitsa) and Russian (kotsy). The fishing trap consists of a weir constructed of posts or laths hammered into the shallow waters of a lake creating a screen or catchment area. In the evening the fish seek out the shallow shores and are led into the Katisse (see drawing)

Due to the word’s etymology, this fishing method was long believed to have been imported by migrating Forest Finns in the 17th century.

Eiliv Elg Carried fish to Lake Rausjø. The Rune stone from ca 1100 is lost. Source: Drawing 1775.
Eiliv Elg Carried fish to Lake Rausjø, the inscription tells us. The Rune stone from ca 1100 is lost. Source: Drawing 1775.

In 2021, however, archaeologists discovered a fishing trap of the Katisse-type in Nord-Mesna, a lake in Ringsaker in the region Hedmark. Using C-14, the remains were dated to the late Middle Ages, more precisely, c. 1200-1350. During this period, the trap was regularly maintained and repaired, the last time in 1343 (dendrochronologically dated).

Shedding light on an old fishing technique, the find documents the significance of the Norwegian wilderness in securing food and sustenance in the Middle Ages. Even today, no more than 3.5% of Norway is farmed with 6.2% occupied by lakes and rivers. The rest is forests, heaths and bogs surrounded by mountains and glaciers. The value of the inland fishing waters is documented in the Norwegian Medieval lawbooks, prohibiting erecting barriers across streams or destroying the gears of others.

The remains of the Katissa in the lakes near the city of Lillehammer (23 in all) indicate the economic importance to the peasants of freshwater fishing. However, the fishing must have been carried out as part of the exploitation of the wilderness, as no settlements have been found near the shores of the lakes. Farms were located further inland, two to three km from the shore.

The catch today consists of trout, perch, smelt, whitefish, common minnow, pike and bullhead, with trout and perch as the most likely medieval catches. The many species of fish ended up the rivers and lakes after the last Ice age. However, peasants also stocked lakes with fish from time to time.

Today, however, the catch is nowhere as generous as it used to be (personal communication from a visitor at Maihagen Museum in the summer of 2022, who claimed that in her childhood freshwater fishing contributed to the family economy when she was growing up). Today, the fishing is destroyed because of the sourcing of hydroelectric power.

Ethnological studies of fishing from the beginning of the 20th century indicate that the catch from the traps might reach up to 50 kg in one day in spring and early summer flattening out in the autumn. However, the traps had to be “emptied” once a day, requiring continuous attention.

The archaeologists consider the Black Death the probable reason why the continued exploitation of the fishing trap at Lake Mesna came to a full stop when 60% of all Norwegian farms were abandoned after 1350.

Post or "staur" from Nord mesna. © Axel Mjærum, Kulturhistorisk Museum, Universitetet i Oslo (By kind permission).
Post or “staur” from Nord mesna. © Axel Mjærum, Kulturhistorisk Museum, Universitetet i Oslo (By kind permission).


Fiskevollen. Maihagen Museum 2022 © Schousboe. The exhibition tells the story of the freshwater fishing carried out in the rivers and lakes in the region.


Middelalderfiske, fellefangst og fraflytting: en dendrokronologisk undersøkelse av et 1300-talls stasjonært fiskeanlegg i Nord-Mesna, Sørøst-Norge
By Av Axel Mjærum, Andreas J. Kirchhefer, Ellen K. Friis, Finn Audun Grøndahl og Björn Gunnarson
Fornvännen (2024) Vol 119 No 1 pp 25-44


Katissa at Nord Mesna during excavation © Axel Mjærum, Kulturhistorisk Museum, Universitetet i Oslo (By kind permission).
Katissa at Nord Mesna during excavation © Axel Mjærum, Kulturhistorisk Museum, Universitetet i Oslo (By kind permission).

Fishing in rivers and lakes has traditionally been a longstanding and dependable means of sustenance for the people of inland Scandinavia.

However, our understanding of pre-modern fishing traditions has been hampered by a lack of written sources, as well as a scarcity of archaeological data. However, a recent excavation and comprehensive dendrochronological analysis of a fish trapping enclosure system in Lake Nord-Mesna (520 masl.), in the boreal forests of inland Norway, has provided unique insight into freshwater fishing traditions, techniques and organization.

The excavated structure, believed to be a fish weir with lath screen traps set into shallow water, was established in the late 1200s. In the following years, it was regularly maintained in the spring/early summer. The last documented repair was in 1343. Likely the abandonment resulted from a recession induced by factors such as plague and climatic deterioration, that affected inland areas of Scandinavia in the 1300s. These results provide archaeological evidence of the medieval utilization of effective enclosure traps in the region. This contradicts the prevailing notion that this form of fishing was later introduced by Forest Finns who migrated to the area in the 17th century. In addition, the findings give new and significant information about the organization and practice of medieval fishing in inland Scandinavia.


Nøklevann. Arkeologisk Rapport nr 2016:5
By Sven Ahrens, Elin Hansen, Elling Utvik Wammer.
Norsk Maritime Museum 2016

Mesnavassdraget. Rapport.
Arkeologiske Undersøkelser.
Kulturhistorisk Museum, Oslo 2023


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