Whaling in the Faroe Islands 17th of June 1854. Source: Wikipedia

On the Hunt for Medieval Whales

Recent book explores the practices of medieval whaling, drive-whaling and scavenging in Europe in the Middle Ages. Youri van den Hurk, offers new and exciting insights into the archaeology and cultural history

On the Hunt for Medieval Whales
Zooarchaeological, historical and social perspectives on cetacean exploitation in medieval northern and western Europe.
By Youri van den Hurk
Series: BAR international series vol 2998
2020

REVIEW

During the Middle Ages, avid exploitation of whales was known among the communities of fishermen living on the coastline of the Baltic, The Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Especially whaling appears to have been carried out by the Norse, the Frisians, the Flemish, the Normans, the Basques and the Portuguese. But in general, we may consider whaling and occasional scavenging as two sides of any hunting carried out at sea. Following this meat, bone, oil and skin would be carefully harvested and brought to use whenever the opportunity arose.

For many European regions, laws specified who might have the usufruct of a stranded whale, which any whale at some point became when it was hunted and/or floated to land. Here, the whale became the property of the social elite, the King and those he invested with these rights. One of the reasons whales were sought for had to do with their status as “fish”. Although much like red meat, the digestion of salted whale-meat during lent and on “fish-days” was coveted.

The knowledge of which species were exploited has until now been sketchy. In a brilliant and enticing thesis, Youri van den Hurk, carried out a valuable registration and analysis of the zooarchaeological cetacean remains at 406 medieval sites with a total of 5528 specimens, representing at least eighteen different species. By re-examining these specimens with the help of mass-Spectrometry, these specimens were used to identify and classify the most common species.

This study, recently published by the British Archaeological Association, has indicated that the harbour porpoise, the North Atlantic right whale and the common bottlenose dolphin were common in the material, “indeed suggesting that many cultures performed active hunting on cetaceans”, writes Youri van den Hurk, who notes that this was especially prevalent for the period between AD 1000-1350. He also writes that these remains were especially prevalent in high-status or ecclesiastical sites, identifying the consumption of whale meat as an elite prerogative. This conclusion, perhaps, does not quite hold up. Elite sites tend to be better excavated, and we may – perhaps– see this conclusion tempered in the future. Also, Hurk notes that remains from whales have been recovered from rural sites indicating that the consumption was more widespread until after the Reformation in Northern Europe when fasting became obsolete.

As said, the systematic hunting of the smaller species – the porpoises, dolphins and pilot whales – dominated. However, at some point in the 14th century, the North Atlantic right whale population collapsed – perhaps later followed by the grey whale – indicating that the Medieval Period may be seen as “the dawn of a period of centuries of relentless and decimating whaling activities”, Hurk concludes.

This fine publication offers a splendid overview of both the written and the archaeological material, which allows the reader to delve into facts and figures of the whaling and occasional scavenging, which allowed medieval people to exploit these “gifts” from a seemingly abundant and limitless sea-world.

However, it also makes it possible to correct some of the more common misconceptions governing the medieval craft of whaling. Yes, large whales were hunted at sea. Hurk tells us that the species of right whales probably numbered around 12.000 in the eleventh century when the Basques began their organised whale-hunting. However, at that time, the Norse had been at it since the 6th century. Studies of the loss of genetic variation have shown that the non-sustainable exploitation of these slow and somewhat less aggressive animals took off at the turn of the first millennium. Today, no more than 300-500 individuals roam the sea. Another whale currently at a level 75% below pre-whaling is the grey whale, which also appears to have been prey.

Looking at the figures, though, it becomes apparent that of all the baleen whales, 71% were right whales, and of the toothed whales, the harbour porpoises and the bottle-nosed dolphins constituted 75%. Further, looking at the maps, the distribution of such crafted artefacts as plaques and weaving swords which calls for remains from the larger species, are near ubiquitously distributed to the North and stem from Norse (Viking) settlements.

Hurk writes, “it is surprising that very little zooarchaeological material has been recovered from the Basque region (both the Spanish and French parts), as well as from Normandy. The Basques and the Normans are two of the medieval cultures most frequently associated with whaling. The lack of zooarchaeological cetacean remains deriving from those regions might potentially be explained by fewer archaeological excavations being undertaken in the region, or the Basques and Normans might have had little interest in using cetacean bone remains and might have left those at the shore or potentially thrown them overboard where there is small chance they can be recovered by archaeologists. It is surprising that very little zooarchaeological material has been recovered from the Basque region (both the Spanish and French parts), as well as from Normandy. The Basques and the Normans are two of the medieval cultures most frequently associated with whaling. The lack of zooarchaeological cetacean remains deriving from those regions might potentially be explained by fewer archaeological excavations being undertaken in the region, or the Basques and Normans might have had little interest in using cetacean bone remains and might have left those at the shore or potentially thrown them overboard where there is small chance they can be recovered by archaeologists.”

Or, we may add, another conclusion might be that while fishermen along the Atlantic coast might organise hunts for the lesser porpoises and dolphins, hence their documented “whaling enterprises”, the Norse must have hunted for right whales and the larger species at an earlier date than people further south (the Frisians, Flemish, Normans, Basques and Portuguese people), who kept to whale-driving the smaller species until “proper” whaling businesses were set up post-1500.

Review by Karen Schousboe

FEATURED PHOTO:

Whaling in the Faroe Islands as observed in 1854. Image extracted from page 107 of A Narrative of the Cruise of the Yacht Maria among the Feroe Islands in the Summer of 1854. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.

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