Cetacean exploitation in Roman and medieval London: Reconstructing whaling activities by applying zooarchaeological, historical, and biomolecular analysis

Youri van den Hurk*, Kevin Rielly, Mike Buckley

*Corresponding author for this work

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Cetacean (whale, dolphin, and porpoise) remains are occasionally encountered at Roman and medieval sites in London and are regularly the topic of medieval historical sources. These sources are often concerned with whale strandings and the subsequent claims on the carcass by the king, queen, or other members of the nobility or clergy with jurisdiction over the coastline that the whale stranded upon. The meat stripped from the carcasses was regularly transported to London and cetaceans have therefore been ascribed as a “high-status food source”. Besides, strandings, several historical sources also suggest that active whaling was undertaken, and that meat was sold at several London markets. Based on these historical sources it however remains unclear to what extent active whaling was undertaken, and which species were exploited.

Zooarchaeological studies address whales and their role in Roman and medieval society more directly through the study of animal bones. This study combines historical sources and the identification of zooarchaeological cetacean remains from the London sites of Bermondsey Abbey, Westminster Abbey (cellarium), Winchester Palace, Vintry, St Peter’s Hill, and Trig Lane through Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS) and morphological analysis. The historical and zooarchaeological evidence from London indicates that cetacean meat was indeed associated with a high-status diet, in particular the ecclesiastical diet, though some form of commercialization of cetacean meat also took place. On occasion, whale bone was used for the creation of bone artefacts or tools, primarily during the Middle Saxon period. Additionally, it is suggested that active whaling might occasionally have been undertaken, potentially already from the Middle Saxon period onwards. However, the majority of the remains were probably acquired through opportunistic scavenging of stranded individuals.
Original languageEnglish
Article number102795
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
Early online date22-Jan-2021
Publication statusPublished - Apr-2021


  • Cetacean
  • Whale
  • Dolphin
  • Whaling
  • London
  • Medieval
  • Zooarchaeology
  • ZooMS

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