5. Prehistoric Fishing

While fishing would have played an integral part within the lives of prehistoric coastal and island communities, for most of western Britain evidence for fishing is not well represented within the archaeological record. In part, this is as a result of the poor preservation of fish bones, which are affected by taphonomic factors such as physical, chemical and biological processes following their deposition. Only the more robust parts of the skeleton appear to survive, and cooking renders the skeleton even more brittle and liable to fragmentation (O'Connor 2000).

Recent isotopic studies carried out on human bone from both Late Mesolithic and Early Bronze Age sites suggest a marked change in diet across the Mesolithic/Neolithic transition (Richards and Hedges 1999; Schulting 2004; Schulting and Richards 2000; 2002). This change in diet is marked by a move from marine to terrestrial resources and has been interpreted as the result of the emergence of farming at around 4000 cal BC (Schulting 2004). However, the validity of this interpretation has been questioned, with evidence for Neolithic midden deposits containing fish bones, shellfish and marine mammals occurring throughout the period when this change in diet is thought to have occurred (Milner et al. 2004; 2007). Numerous Neolithic and Bronze Age middens have been identified for Britain and Ireland, demonstrating the continued use of marine resources within particular regions (Milner and Woodman 2007; Wickham-Jones 2007). Recently, Stevens and Fuller have argued that although dietary changes may have occurred during the transition as a result of the adoption of farming, such changes were short lived and regionally specific (2012).

Fish species identified from archaeological deposits can be used to suggest the seasonality of fishing practices, areas within the sea exploited and the types of fishing methods used (Colley 1990; Pickard and Bonsall 2007). Marine fish may be divided into three sub-groups relating to their primary habitat: littoral species, inshore species and deep-water species (Colley 1990; Pickard and Bonsall 2007; Wheeler 1978).

It is important to note that deep-sea fishing does not necessarily imply offshore activity as deep-sea fish can periodically be caught with long lines from cliffs and rocks where deep water occurs close to the shoreline. Equally, many species that inhabit deep waters may also enter shallow, inshore waters during migrations or to spawn (Wheeler 1978). Predictable migrations of this type make such species especially vulnerable to capture (Pickard and Bonsall 2007, 279). While this does not necessarily imply that fishing from boats did not occur during prehistory, it does suggest that land-based fishing would also have played an equally important role in peoples' subsistence strategies. Offshore expeditions were most likely undertaken in search of particular species of fish or sea mammal, but it is unlikely that such expeditions would have occurred in the treacherous waters of the Atlantic in anything other than ideal conditions.

Success in fishing requires the ability to read the apparently invisible features of the seabed and to interpret the spatial and temporal behaviour of fish correctly. The decision of where to fish each day is made largely on the basis of pre-determined information about the environment (Andersen and Wadel 1972, 154). This is accomplished by organising environmental knowledge of moon and tide into a system for choosing fishing spots that relate to the movement and migration of fish species. There is a tendency on the part of economic approaches to discount important intuitive aspects of environmental decision making; the assumption is that fish must be sought blindly (Christy and Scott 1965, 88). In general, there is little appreciation of how, and to what extent, fishermen make use of environmental clues to predict the behaviour and movement of different species. Anthropological studies show that fishermen do consistently know where the fish are (Cordell 1974, 380). Fish behaviour is not random; most species periodically concentrate to feed or spawn, or migrate in schools. Fishermen learn to capitalise on the patterned behaviour of fish, they incorporate this knowledge into systems of orientation; essentially calendrical devices that enable them to map out the distribution of sites through which fish pass at predictable intervals. An evocative historical illustration of this is provided by Martin in his description of the ring-net fishermen of western Scotland (1980; 2001). Martin describes how, through the close observation of the surface of the sea and the use of smell, fishermen would await the barely perceptible 'appearances' of herring as they broke surface (2001, 26). This, combined with the close observation of seabirds and sea mammals, allowed the location of where to cast nets to be precisely identified.

Both the equipment and techniques that are most suited to the efficient capture of a particular fish species, and seasonal variation in vulnerability to capture, are determined by the biological adaptation and behaviour of that species (Pickard and Bonsall 2007, 274). Thus, the range of fish species identified at an archaeological site reflects the method and location of capture. The fishing gear available to prehistoric communities can be divided into four categories: hook and lines, nets, fish spears and harpoons, and weirs and traps. Long lines are particularly effective for the capture of demersal species that are found in deeper waters, and for inshore fishing grounds that are inaccessible by boat (Gunda 1984). Long lines can be set from the shore, or trolled from boats. Species such as cod and ling are crepuscular feeders and, as such, are most active and therefore most vulnerable to capture at night. Therefore to maximise catches, fishing lines would be set out or operated immediately prior to dusk. Nets made from vegetable fibre or animal sinew would have been particularly effective in catching shoaling species of fish such as mackerel and herring. Nets could have been set within frames at low tide or thrown from boats. Nets could have been set by boat, close to shore or between the headlands of a bay, and hauled onto beaches. It is unlikely that nets were used at depth since the hauling of deep-water nets could easily capsize a small boat. In traditional fisheries, harpoons and spears are generally used for subsistence fishing only in conjunction with other techniques and gear, such as poisons, lures, ground baits and weirs, which concentrate the fish within a single locale (Gunda 1984). Recent coastal archaeological surveys around Britain and Ireland have led to the survey, excavation and analysis of fish weirs, ranging in date from prehistory to the post-medieval period (Fulford et al. 1997, 143–5). The earliest known are Neolithic and Bronze Age wooden structures associated with fishing activities at Wootton-Quarr on the Isle of Wight (Loader et al. 1997) and on the Welsh shore of the Severn estuary (Bell et al. 2000, 307, 310). A possible Bronze Age fish-trap was found during the Shannon coastal survey and comprised two rows of posts supporting wooden wattle fences (O'Sullivan 2001). Also in Ireland, rows of wooden stakes joined by wattling, and dating to around 1000 BC, were found in an ancient river bed at New Ferry, Lough Begg (Mitchell 1965, 1).


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal based in the Department of Archaeology, University of York. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

Terms and Conditions | Legal Statements | Privacy Policy | Cookies Policy | Citing Internet Archaeology

Internet Archaeology content is preserved for the long term with the Archaeology Data Service. Help sustain and support open access publication by donating to our Open Access Archaeology Fund.

File last updated: Fri May 31 2013