Fish Trade in Norse Orkney and Caithness: A Zooarchaeological Approach

Article excerpt

The trade of dried fish played an important role in the transformation from the Viking Age to the Middle Ages in Scandinavian polities such as Arctic Norway. This paper develops zooarchaeological methods to investigate whether similar processes occurred in the less well documented Norse colonies of northern Scotland -- the joint earldoms of Orkney and Caithness.

The problem

During the Viking Age (9th-11th centuries) and Middle Ages (11th-15th centuries) much of northern Scotland -- including Caithness and the archipelagos Orkney and Shetland -- was ruled by the earls of Orkney and Caithness as a semi-independent Norse polity (Crawford 1982; 1987) (Figure 1). Were these earldoms engaged in the dried fish trade of profound importance in better-documented Scandinavian contexts such as Norway and Iceland? Dried cod family (Gadidae) fishes, demanded in Britain and continental Europe for purposes as diverse as Lenten fare and military rations (Hammond 1993; Heinrich 1986a; Prestwich 1967), were probably exported from Arctic Norway by the 11th or 12th centuries (Bertelsen 1992; Nedkvitne 1976; Perdikaris 1996; Urbanczyk 1992). They became important to Iceland's long-range trade by the late 13th century (Amorosi 1991; Carus-Wilson 1967; Gelsinger 1981). The fish trade contributed to the incorporation of these `peripheries' of the medieval world into the milieu of European Christian culture (Bertelsen 1991; 1992; Buckland et al. 1994; Urbanczyk 1992). In the less well documented Scandinavian colonies of Scotland, was participation in the medieval cured-fish trade correlated with the 11th- to 12th-century adoption of European ideology evidenced by Romanesque architecture (e.g. Crawford 1988) and Christian burial practice (e.g. Batey 1993b; Driscoll 1993)? Two issues stand at the heart of the problem: were dried fish exported from the medieval earldoms? What evidence exists regarding when this trade may have begun? These issues are addressed by combining analyses of zooarchaeological data, site-formation processes, limited direct historical evidence and analogies from later periods in the history of northern Scotland.


The importance of long-range trade in the Norse earldoms of northern Scotland is not in question. There is little surviving historical evidence (Barrett 1995; Crawford 1987; Thomson 1987), but imported artefacts are informative. Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of 12th- to 14th-century pottery of British and continental type from the earldoms. The total number of sherds, at c. 482 small in comparison with urban centres (e.g. Reed 1990; Blackmore & Vince 1995), compares very favourably with other rural areas of the North Atlantic where the importance of long-range trade is historically documented. In Iceland, fewer than 50 sherds pre-dating the 15th century are recorded (Sveinbjarnardottir 1996).

Little historical evidence regarding fish trade in Orkney, Caithness and Shetland pre-dates the 15th century (below). However, distinctive fish middens dominated by bone from cod and related species have been discovered at the medieval sites of Robert's Haven (Barrett 1995; Morris et al. 1994; Simpson & Barrett 1996) and Freswick Links (Morris et al. 1995), in Caithness. They may also exist at Quoygrew (Colley 1983a; 1984), St Boniface (Ceron-Carrasco 1994) and Sandwick (Bigelow 1984; 1985; 1989). Middens at these locations include `unusually pure concentrations of fish bone and molluscs' (Bigelow 1984) and `a large quantity of marine shell and fish remains' (Colley 1983a). Following Colley (1983a; 1989), Bigelow (1985; 1989) and Ceron-Carrasco (1994), the present paper asks if some deposits are residue from processing fish for export. I focus on results from Robert's Haven, Caithness, and from a domestic site at Earl's Bu, Orkney. Their comparison illuminates distinctive aspects of the Robert's Haven deposit and facilitates a better understanding of taphonomic biases. …