Dr. Hannah Russ, Oxford Brookes Archaeology and Heritage (OBAH), has been studying the thousands of fish bones that were recovered through careful sieving of sediments during archaeological excavations at Durham Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was home to a Benedictine monastic community. The fish bones come from deposits that have built up from disposal of domestic waste over the years of occupation at the site, and provide a unique insight into the diet of the Benedictine Monks that once lived there.
Hannah observes each fragment of fish bone, identifying the skeletal element and the species of fish that it represents. Other features on the bone are recorded including evidence for burning, cut-marks and gnawing by animals. Identifiable bones are measured so that the original size of the fish that were eaten can be reconstructed.
Fish was an important part of the diet for the Christian community of England during Medieval times, when consumption of warm-blooded animals was prohibited not just on Fridays, but also Wednesdays, Saturdays, during Advent, Lent and on other holy days. These dietary rules would have been followed to the letter by the Benedictine Monks. The medieval period saw considerable developments in the preservation of fish, especially in the cases of Atlantic herring and the larger cod family fishes (Atlantic cod and ling). While herring were preserved whole, pickled in barrels, the larger cods were processed to remove the head and then dried (known as stockfish). In these preserved forms the fish could be safely transported inland, and further afield, without the risk of spoiling. It might be expected that these fish would feature heavily in the Durham Cathedral assemblage, though this was found not to be the case.
While herring and large cod family fishes are present, they do not dominate the fish collection; instead the fish bones from Durham Cathedral represent a diverse range of fish species. In addition, the remains of the large cod family fishes that are present are represented by both head bones and vertebrae suggesting that they do not represent the use of dried stockfish, where only vertebrae would be present, but the consumption of whole, fresh, fish.
Overall, Hannah was able to conclude that fish represented a crucial aspect of the diet for the Benedictine Monks living at Durham Cathedral. But, it was not boring, repetitive consumption of pickled herring and large dried cod family fishes as might have been expected, but a diet where smaller cod family fishes were important and overall an exciting, diverse array of whole, fresh, marine, freshwater and migratory species were consumed.