Whales in Anglo-Saxon England

Two recent studies have assessed a large quantity of worked whale-bone recovered from Anglo-Saxon contexts in Southampton (Hamwic), Ipswich, and Flixborough, finding that each site may have employed different strategies for obtaining cetacean remains.

Whether whales were actively hunted or opportunistically scavenged during the Anglo-Saxon period has been the subject of much debate. Scientific analysis of whale-bone assemblages from this period potentially offers one way to answer this question.

Accordingly, an international team, led by researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, analysed 29 samples of worked bone from Southampton (below), 10 samples from Ipswich, and 11 samples from Flixborough, using peptide mass fingerprinting of bone collagen (ZooMS) to determine their species.

Image: Van den Hurk et al. (2023) Medieval Archaeology. Photograph by I Riddler

The results of the project confidently found that 17 specimens from Hamwic were from the Balaenidae family, which includes three right-whale species and the closely related bowhead whale. Three more specimens were identified as being ‘probable Balaenidae’, while a final three were found to be either fin whale or Balaenidae. The last six samples either could not be identified or were found to come from terrestrial mammals.

The team suggest that the Balaenidae species was most likely the North Atlantic right whale. This is because other members of the family – the southern right whale and the North Pacific right whale – live in very different oceanic basins. While bowhead whales inhabit Arctic waters, individual bowheads have been known to travel into more southern waters, so it cannot be completely excluded, but it is a less likely scenario. Overall, the fact that only one type of whale was confidently discovered suggests that these bones may have all come from the same whale or that right whales were specifically chosen for use. The team suggest further aDNA analysis might provide more answers.

The specimens from Anglo-Saxon Ipswich found a completely different trend. While three Balaenidae were identified, they also found one blue whale, one fin whale, one sperm whale, one common minke whale, and two humpback whales, as well as one Cervidae. These results suggest that at Ipswich stranded individuals were probably exploited, as it is unlikely these larger species were hunted.

The samples from Flixborough seemed to tell yet another story. Large quantities of common bottlenose dolphin specimens previously identified there have indicated that dolphin-hunting was undertaken at the site. This project identified another three dolphins, as well as three sei whales, two common minke whales, two long-finned pilot whale/false killer whale/Risso’s dolphin, as well as one horse. It appears that, besides a strong focus on dolphin-hunting, other taxa might occasionally have been opportunistically targeted.

The Hamwic results were published in Medieval Archaeology (https://doi.org/10.1080/00766097.2023.2204674).