4.3 The Fish Bones by Alison Locker

Cite this as: Locker, A. 2015, The Fish Bones, in M. Atkinson and S.J. Preston Heybridge: A Late Iron Age and Roman Settlement, Excavations at Elms Farm 1993-5, Internet Archaeology 40.

Wet-sieving of bulk soil samples produced fish bones in small quantities from a large number of contexts. Although dominated by flatfish, a variety of species was present, often represented by very few bones. The species and families identified are, eel (Anguilla anguilla(), herring (Clupea harengus), shad (Alosa sp.), Salmonidae, cf. pike (Esox lucius), whiting (Merlangius merlangus), poor cod (Trisopterus minutes), saithe (Pollachius virens), Gadidae, cf. red mullet (Mullus surmuletus), thin-lipped grey mullet (Liza ramada), Mugilidae, mackerel (Scomber scombrus), plaice (Pleuronectes platessa), flounder (Platichthys flesus), plaice/flounder (Pleuronectes platessa/Platichthys flesus), cf. dab (Limanda limanda), cf. halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) and flatfish indet.

The fish were recovered from contexts dating from the Late Iron Age to the Late Roman/Saxon transition from a number of different areas of the settlement. The fish identified from each site period are summarised in Table 152. Full tables showing the fish identified in each context are held in the archive. The harsh acidic gravel conditions of the site are presumed to have adversely affected the overall preservation and survival of the bones.

Most of the fish were recovered from a variety of context types including pits, ditches and well fills. Some of burnt bone was present in deposits that also contained unburnt bone.

Table 152: Summary of identified fish bones
  LI1A-Roman trans. Early Roman Mid-Roman Late Roman Total
Eel 1 18 2 5 26
Herring - 1 1 3 5
Shad 7 1 - - 8
Salmonid - 1 2 - 3
cf. Pike - - - 1 1
Whiting - - 1 - 1
Poor cod - - 1 - 1
Saithe - 1 - - 1
Small Gadid 3 25 - - 28
cf. Red Mullet - - - 1 1
Thin-lipped Grey Mullet - - - 1 1
Mugilidae 1 - - - 1
Mackerel - - 1 - 1
Plaice 1 - - 4 5
Flounder 28 1 5 - 34
Plaice/Flounder 1 11 3 15 30
Dab - 2 - 5 7
Halibut - - - 1 1
Flatfish 30 45 19 18 112
Total 72 106 35 54 267

Of the twenty-eight flounder bones in Late Iron Age/Roman transitional contexts, twenty-three are likely to be from a single fish of approximately 300mm total length.

Only the identified material is presented in Table 152 and this small assemblage suggests continuity in the species exploited from the Late Iron Age to the Late Roman period, with a dependence on inshore marine fishing and exploitation of migratory species in freshwater.

The flatfishes, most specifically plaice and flounder, are most numerous. These would have been part of an inshore coastline/estuarine fishery along the Blackwater Estuary where they would have been caught on lines or in shoreline traps. Two burnt caudal vertebrae, attributed to halibut, were found in Pit 11342 (Group 58, Area N, Period 2A) with other burnt fish bone and were from a small immature fish still in its inshore phase.

As well as freshwater species such as pike, migratory species that are found in freshwater either seasonally or at a particular phase of their lifecycle, were also present. These could have been caught in local rivers and comprise eel, shad, salmonid and thin-lipped grey mullet.

There is no evidence for deep water fishing in the North Sea (the saithe dentary is from a small immature fish of around 240mm total length), the absence of which characterises Roman deposits in Britain and contrasts with the growing importance of the large gadid species during the Late Saxon and medieval periods.

Evidence for Roman influence in the fish bone collection is suggested by the remains of species also common in the Mediterranean, including a mackerel vertebra from fill 5939 (mid-Roman pit 5940, Group 420, Area J) and a ?red mullet vertebra from fill 10897 (Late Roman pit 10953, Group 673, Area N). Both of these can be found in the southern North Sea where the red mullet is a summer visitor (Wheeler 1978, 268). However, there is no evidence for high status as suggested by some of the fish species and other exotic plant remains identified at Great Holts Farm, Essex (Locker 2003; Murphy et al. 2000).


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