Killer whale remains from Anglo-Saxon Norfolk

Thanks to the development of ZooMS, it is now possible to differentiate between different animal species using collagen peptide fingerprinting techniques.

Animal bone recovered from the Anglo-Saxon settlement at Sedgeford in Norfolk is highly likely to have come from a killer whale, according to new research undertaken as part of the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP).


The SHARP team discovered four pieces of whale bone (one shown above) during excavations in Chalk Pit Field in 2011. As Zoe Knapp reported at the time in ‘The Animals of Sedgeford’, published as part of SHARP’s 2011 interim report (see ‘The star animal-bone find of the 2011 season has to be the four large and heavily butchered fragments of whale bone that were recovered from a pit filled with an unusual amount of razor, oyster, mussel, and cockle shells. Articulated remains of sheep vertebrae and other faunal fragments were also found in the pit.’

Whale bone is a regular find on UK archaeological sites, but specimens tend to be so heavily worked or fragmented that it is often difficult to distinguish between species. As a result, very little is currently known about which types of whale were present in British waters in the past. Thanks to the development of ZooMS (ZooArchaeology by Mass Spectrometry; see CA 338, 353, and 381), though, it is now possible to differentiate between different animal species using collagen peptide fingerprinting techniques.

A ZooMS analysis of the Sedgeford whale bone (carried out at the University of Cambridge) was undertaken by Youri van den Hurk, a postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and his supervisor Dr James Barrett, as part of SHARP’s wider project to support open research and education. Samples were gathered from a location on one of the vertebrae where minimal damage would be caused, and analysis of the protein collagen identified the specimen as either killer whale or Atlantic white-sided dolphin. The latter species was small in size, however, and the researchers therefore concluded that the specimen is highly likely to have come from a killer whale, adding invaluable UK material to a dataset that already comprises more than 500 whale specimens from the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Norway, and Iceland.

Whale carcasses are a valuable commodity, and whale remains have been used in the past in Britain as a source of food, oil, and bone. Sizable pieces of whale bone, together with more than 30 Iron Age artefacts made from this material, have been found at The Cairns in Orkney, for example, including a large vessel carved from a whale vertebra (CA 323 and 363). The 2011 discovery from medieval Sedgeford, however, represented SHARP’s first encounter with large pieces of whale bone. ‘This was a first for Sedgeford, and we are assuming that part of the animal was transported, probably via the river, from one of the nearby beaches,’ the team said on their website.

The historic presence of various whale species in British waters, and the historic frequency of active whaling in the same area, is a matter of some uncertainty. As Zoe suggested in her report, though, the Sedgeford whale was probably not caught deliberately: ‘Despite the fact that our Scandinavian neighbours often practised whale-hunting during this period, whales were not hunted in Anglo-Saxon England due to the innate, deeply held fear of this large creature and its aquatic environment. Therefore, the Sedgeford whale fragments would have come from a stranded whale, the initial butchery and processing of which would have taken place on the coastal shore to make the meat more transportable.’