Cetacean Exploitation in Medieval Northern and Western Europe: Zooarchaeological, Historical, and Social Approaches

Research output: ThesisThesis fully external


Medieval cetacean exploitation has often been connected to various societies, including the Basques, Norse, Normans, and Flemish. The extent to which active whaling was practiced remains unclear. Furthermore, primarily for the ninth to the twelfth centuries AD, it has been argued that the symbolic significance of cetaceans surpassed their utilitarian value and that their consumption was restricted to the social elite. For many European regions, laws were set in place ensuring that any stranded cetacean was the property of the social elite.
Little research has been conducted on zooarchaeological cetacean remains. The identification of cetacean fragments to the species level is hard and are frequently merely identified as “whale” resulting in a poor understanding of human-cetacean interaction in the past.
As part of this study, a literature review was undertaken for which medieval sites from Northern and Western Europe where cetacean remains have been found were assessed. The Osteological Reference for Cetaceans in Archaeology-Manual (ORCA-Manual) was created to optimize identification of cetaceans remains. Furthermore, a select number of remains were re-examined using the created ORCA-manual as well as Zooarchaeology by Mass-Spectrometry (ZooMS), in order to identify the remains to species level.
This study indicates that especially the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), and the common bottlenose dolphin (Turiops truncatus) are well represented in the medieval archaeological record, indeed suggesting that active hunting was occasionally undertaken. Several specimens of the grey whale were also identified, suggesting that active whaling might be one of the reasons why the species disappeared from European waters.
Medieval cetacean remains are frequently recovered from high-status and ecclesiastical sites, suggesting that the exploitation and consumption of cetaceans was restricted to the social elite, though they are also recovered from “rural” site types, suggesting peasant efforts to undermine elite control of stranded cetaceans.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University College London
  • Martin, Louise, Supervisor, External person
  • Reynolds, Andrew, Supervisor, External person
Award date30-Mar-2020
Publication statusUnpublished - 26-Apr-2020


  • Zooarchaeology
  • Whale
  • Dolphin
  • Porpoise
  • Medieval
  • Cetacean
  • Europe
  • ZooMS
  • Osteology
  • Grey whale
  • Harbour porpoise

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