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Something Fishy at Durham Cathedral

Hannah Durham Fish

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.

Zooarchaeological research at Rubayqa and Ruwaydah, northern Qatar

March 2013 saw me return to Al-Shamal, northern Qatar for a second season, continuing work on faunal remains recovered during excavation of two Islamic Period sites; Rubayqa and Ruwaydah. Directed by Dr. Andrew Petersen, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, excavations at Rubayqa and Ruwaydah have yielded substantial animal remains including mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, marine molluscs, and crustaceans.

Rubayqa is a Late Islamic period settlement site located on the west side of the Ras Ushayriq peninsula in northern Qatar. Rescue excavations were carried out at this site prior to its expected destruction through the construction of the Bahrain-Qatar Friendship Causeway. The faunal assemblage contained a diverse range of mammalian fauna, including camel, horse, donkey, cattle, gazelle, sheep, goat, dog, cat, lagomorphs and rat. The bird assemblage was much less diverse, with the majority of remains representing cormorant (both great and Socotra appear to be present). The fish remains included taxa from fifteen families, including both cartilaginous and bony fish. The final report on the faunal remains from Rubayqa is currently being prepared for publication in a site monograph.

Ruwaydah is a much larger scale settlement, located on the north east coast of Qatar. Ruwaydah was occupied for a much longer period of time then Rubayqa, with evidence for occupation extending back into earlier the part of the Islamic period. (Petersen & Grey 2012). Excavations at Ruwaydah began in 2009 and are on-going. The excavation of midden deposits and a well in the 2013 season have yielded substantial faunal remains, dominated by fish remains. Although analysis of the faunal remains from Ruwaydah is not yet complete, it is already clear that it is quite different from that recovered from the excavations at Rubayqa, with comparatively fewer examples of wild animal use, and so far, an absence of horse, donkey and camel. The fish bone assemblage appears to be even more diverse than the one from Rubayqa. Remains of fishes from the families Teraponidae (Terapon sp. – various terapon species occurring in the region), Rachycentridae (Rachycentron canadum – cobia), Echeneidae (Echeneis naucrates – sharksucker), Gerreidae (Gerres sp. – silver-biddy), Pomacanthidae (Pomacantus maculosus – yellowbar angelfish) and Scombridae (including, Euthynnus affinis – little tuna/kawakawa, Thunnus sp. (most likely Thunnus tonggol – Longtail tuna, but possibly Thunnus albacores – Yellowfin tuna), and Scomberomorus sp. – narrowbarred Spanish/Indo-Pacific king mackerel) are all new additions.

A highlight of the 2013 season for me was the opportunity to go to Abu Dhabi and stay with Dr. Mark Beech to use his extensive library and impressive fish bone reference collection. Amongst other specimens, we managed to identify a caudal vertebra from a sharksucker (Echeneis naucrates), a mystery bone appearing in the Ruwaydah assemblage. Sharksuckers are certainly not targeted as a dietary resource, and potentially came to the site attached to a shark. Interestingly in some cultures shark suckers are collected and used to fish for sharks and other large fish (up to 10kg) by being tied to a line and allowed out to sea until they attach themselves to a larger fish then they are pulled back so that the larger fish can be retrieved (Hornell 1950).

Collaborators on this project: Andrew Petersen (University of Wales), Faisal Abdulla Al Naimi and Saif Alnuaimi (Qatar Museum Authority), Mark Beech (Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority), Jake Callaghan, Ifan Edwards, Paul Fingleton, Tom Jamison, Ciaran Lavelle, Jessica Tibber, Dee Williams, Lisa Yeomans, and Sheila Hamilton Dyer.

Dr Hannah Russ to present findings at 46th Seminar for Arabian Studies in London

7981117Dr Hannah Russ is due to present her research entitled Turtles as a dietary resource? Evidence from Rubayqa, northern Qatar, and a review of turtle exploitation in Eastern Arabia at the 46th Seminar for Arabian Studies, to be held at the British Museum, London, 26-28 July 2013.