Fish trade in Norse Orkney and Caithness: a zooarchaeological approach

Fish trade in Norse Orkney and Caithness: a zooarchaeological approach

By James H. Barrett

Antiquity, Vol. 71 (1997)

Introduction: 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

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. 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, were probably exported from Arctic Norway by the 11th or 12th centuries. They became important to Iceland’s long-range trade by the late 13th century. The fish trade contributed to the incorporation of these `peripheries’ of the medieval world into the milieu of European Christian culture. 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 and Christian burial practice? 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.

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