Public Release: 

Researchers trawl the origins of sea fishing in Northern Europe

University of York

For decades the study of fish bones was considered one of the most esoteric branches of archaeology, but now it is helping to reveal the massive significance of the fishing trade in the Middle Ages.

New research co-ordinated by archaeologists at the University of York will spotlight the earliest development of Europe's sea fisheries and, given the continuous expansion of sea fishing since the Middle Ages, the ultimate origin of today's fishing crisis.

The three-year project, financed by the Leverhulme Trust and also supported by HMAP, the historical branch of the Census of Marine Life, will involve researchers across Northern Europe.

It builds on earlier research by the project team which discovered that extensive sea fishing began in Europe 1,000 years ago. A major shift from freshwater to sea fishing was due to a combination of climate, population growth and religion.

Dr James Barrett, of the University of York's Department of Archaeology, who is co-ordinating the project, has pinpointed the century between 950AD and 1050AD as the critical period when this fisheries revolution took place.

By studying fish bones from archaeological sites such as York, Gent in Belgium, Ribe in Denmark, Schleswig in Germany and Gdansk in Poland, the researchers hope to establish what long-term impact this rapid switch to intensive sea fisheries had on medieval trading patterns. In York, the vast collections assembled by York Archaeological Trust will provide material for the bone study.

Dried cod was traded from the Arctic in the Middle Ages and, around 1000AD, trade routes opened up across the Viking world to allow long-range trading of bulk staple goods.

Dr Barrett said: "We are using the fish trade as a way of understanding long-term economic and social changes in Northern Europe. We want to look at how a large-scale trade in commodities developed and the way it has been influenced by so many socio-economic and environmental factors."

"We shall use both traditional zooarchaeological techniques and new biomolecular approaches. Dried cod for trade was cut up in certain ways, which can be detected by the cut marks on the bones. Moreover, we will use biomolecular tests to establish whether fish found in towns such as York originated locally from the North Sea or from distant sources such as Arctic Norway."

The biomolecular studies may also provide a direct insight into changes in marine ecosystems and help to improve understanding of the early human impact on fish stocks. The project aims to link an understanding of medieval economic development with the pressing current need to know what marine ecosystems were like before the impact of over-fishing.

The project will depend on interdisciplinary and international cooperation. Its core members, drawn from five European countries, include zooarchaeologists, biomolecular methods experts and a fisheries ecologist, supported by a team of international collaborators, whose expertise covers Northern Europe, from Estonia to Arctic Norway.


Notes for editors:

Core Research Group: Dr Inge Bødker Enghoff, Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Dr Anton Ervynck, Institute for the Archaeological Heritage of the Flemish Community, Belgium. Professor Anne Karin Hufthammer, Bergen Museum, University of Bergen, Norway. Dr. William Hutchinson, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Hull. Professor Michael Richards, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany and Department of Archaeology, University of Durham. Professor Callum Roberts, Environment Department, University of York. Professor Wim Van Neer, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Belgium

Research Fellows: Dr. Cluny Johnstone, University of York. Jennifer Harland, University of York

Research Collaborators: Colin Amundsen, Tromsø Museum, University of Tromsø, Norway. Sheila Hamilton-Dyer, Southampton, England. Dr. Jørgen Schou Christiansen, Norwegian College of Fishery Science, University of Tromsø, Norway. Professor Dirk Heinrich, Christian-Albrechts University, Kiel, Germany. Dr. Andrew Jones, York Archaeological Trust / Bradford University, England. Dr. Leif Jonsson, Göteborg, Sweden. Dr. Alison Locker, Menton, France. Dr. Lembi Lõugas, Institute of History, Tallinn, Estonia. Dr. Daniel Makowiecki, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Poznan, Poland. Professor Wietske Prummel, Groningen Institute of Archaeology, University of Groningen, Netherlands.

Leverhulme Trust Funding: Please note that the Leverhulme Trust grant is awarded to the University of York as an institution rather than the researchers as individuals and that the project is being undertaken by the investigators and not by the Trust.

More information on the University of York's Department of Archaeology at

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