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Oceans Past Northern Seas Synthesis

Oceans Past Northern Seas Synthesis

Project Leader: Dr. James H. Barrett

Project Partners:

James H. Barrett1, Rachel Ballantyne1, Monica Dütting2, Anton Ervynck3Sheila Hamilton-Dyer4Jennifer F. Harland5Poul Holm6 Anne Karin Hufthammer7, Hans Christian Küchelmann8, Alison Locker9Lembi Lõugas10Daniel Makowiecki11John Nicholls6, Rebecca Nicholson12David C. Orton13Inge van der Jagt14Wim Van Neer2Wim Wouters2

Fish bones recovered from archaeological excavations provide one of the most direct windows onto past human use of marine resources, and how aquatic ecosystems have changed through time. They illuminate environmental and economic history, and can guide contemporary fisheries and conservation decisions. Hitherto, this evidence base has been informative but dispersed, in diverse (including unpublished) reports and many languages. The Oceans Past Northern Seas Synthesis aims to transform the value of this resource, the result of decades of meticulous specialist laboratory work, through quantitative meta-analysis and systematic data publication.


herring and other bones from medieval York
Herring and other bones from medieval York, Image credit: J.H. Barrett

The project covers finds from around the Baltic, North, Irish, Celtic, Norwegian and Barents Seas, over the last two thousand years. Pilot research, under the auspices of the Oceans Past Platform of COST (the European Cooperation in Science and Technology), already draws on c.1000 archaeological assemblages including approximately one million identified fish bones. The data are proxies for environmental change. They reveal human impacts on aquatic ecosystems, including potential habitat changes and overfishing. They indicate economic and demographic developments, such as rising (and falling) urban demand, changing long-range trade and episodes of ecological globalization. They illuminate differing foodways, within and between social groups, which influenced the practices of both fishing and aquaculture.

The research will culminate in an atlas of changing human use of aquatic resources over the last two millennia, from Estonia to Ireland, Arctic Norway to the Rhineland – a resource for all who value the denizens of rivers, lakes and seas.


cod bone from medieval thetford
Cod bone from medieval Thetford, Image credit: J.H. Barrett



1McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

2Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels, Belgium

3Flanders Heritage Agency, Brussels, Belgium

4SH-D ArchaeoZoology, Southampton, UK

5University of the Highlands and Islands, Kirkwall, UK

6Centre for Environmental Humanities, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland

7Department of Natural History, University Museum, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway

8German Maritime Museum, Leibniz Institute for German Maritime History, Bremerhaven, Germany

9Escaldes-Engordany, Andorra

10Archaeological Research Collection, Tallinn University, Tallinn, Estonia

11Laboratory for Natural Environment Reconstruction, Institute of Archaeology, Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń, Poland

12Oxford Archaeology, Oxford, UK

13BioArCH, Department of Archaeology, University of York, York, UK

14Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, Amersfoort, Netherlands