Archaeologists crunch data from cod bones to reveal 13th century origins of UK fish trade

By Richard Moss | 28 May 2014

Archaeologists crunching data from an analysis of fish bones uncovered in London say the UK's global fish trade has its origins in the medieval period

an illustration of a cod
The Atlantic Cod has been imported into the UK for over 800 years say archaeologists © Via Wikimedia Commons. Historic NMFS Collection.
Pre-dating the EU Common Fisheries Policy - and fish fingers - by nearly 800 years, Archaeologists analysing data from cod bones say our international fish trade can be traced back to the thirteenth century.

The new discovery, published today in the journal Antiquity, comes thanks to nearly 3,000 cod bones found in 95 different excavations in and around London.

Experts say it highlights the centuries-old importance of the international fishing trade and the globalisation of London’s food supply.

Archaeologists found that a sudden change in the origin of the fish during the early 13th century indicated the onset of a large-scale import trade.

“It's a truly remarkable shift,” says Lead author Dr David Orton from the UCL Institute of Archaeology.  “We had expected a gradual increase in imports as demand grew along with the city's medieval population – thought to have quadrupled between AD 1100 and AD 1300 – but this is something else: evidence for locally caught cod drops off suddenly when the imports come in.

“What did this mean for the local fishing industry? Until we've looked at other fish species and other towns we can't be sure, but the start of this long-range trade may well be an important message about changes in supply and demand.”

Cod were traditionally decapitated as part of preservation for long-range transport, meaning the researchers knew that head bones found during excavations must represent fresh fish from relatively local waters. Vertebrae, by contrast, might be either local or imported.

Comparing frequencies of the two over time, the researchers discovered the sudden switch 'from heads to tails' during the early 13th century.

The team used biochemical signatures to match some of the individual bones to their most likely sources and archaeologists found that from the middle of the 13th century, the majority of sampled bones have signatures suggesting an origin in the far north, probably Arctic Norway.

Co-author Dr James Barrett, from the University of Cambridge, said the rapid shift in appetite for distant fish supplies revealed how “London’s ecological footprint was increasingly extensive”.

“The growing trade connections were making the world a smaller place in the century before the spread of the Black Death.”

The research revealed a temporary drop in imports in the late 14th century perhaps reflecting the Black Death's impact on European trade, and a further surge in imports from around AD1500 - coinciding with the beginnings of trans-Atlantic trade and the arrival of cod from Newfoundland on European markets.

The archaeological data-mining that revealed the insights was made possible by London's archaeological contractors and in particular Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), who each year excavate dozens of sites threatened by development and who opened their database to the researchers. The London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre also helped with the curation of the resulting finds and data.

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