6.1 Fishing

Fish bones have been recovered in substantial quantities from Bronze Age settlements on Scilly and represent both shallow and deep-water species (Robinson 2007, appendices G and H). The fish suggest all year round fishing with both migratory and resident species present. Resident species such as conger eel and wrasse represent the largest portion of bone assemblages, supplemented by both summer and winter migratory species such as ling, bass, cod, John Dory and mackerel (Butcher 1978; Neal 1983; Robinson 2007).

Many of the fish species identified come from ecologically specific environments and demonstrate that people had a detailed knowledge of the behaviours of a range of fish species and an understanding of the topography of an unseen seabed. The majority of the fish identified could be caught from within the shallow-water of the islands' interior lagoon or from the rocky headlands and cliffs of the Atlantic coast. The use of the intertidal zone for trapping shallow-water species demonstrates knowledge of the daily ebb and flow of tide and the behaviour of fish within tidal cycles.

Deep-water species, such as pollack, saithe, and cod, suggest that deeper waters around and beyond the islands were visited. However, high tides bring off-shore species of fish towards the coast where they may also be angled on long lines from the cliffs and beaches.

The fishing methods employed must have been sophisticated as conger eels in excess of 3m, ling of 2m and a large species of elasmobranch (probably basking shark) were recorded from 2nd millennium BC midden deposits at Nornour (Turk 1971, 88). During the 2nd and 1st millennium BC, fishing weirs and traps may have been constructed across tidal channels or between small off-shore islands and the mainland. Preservation of fish was probably by wind drying, smoking and salting (Badia 2001).

Bass, conger eel, mullet, turbot and wrasse, are the most commonly occurring species and would most likely have been caught on lines from the coastline and in fishing weirs constructed within the shallow waters of the islands. The construction of weirs, either through the modification of natural hollows within the intertidal zone to create pools, or through the construction of stone walls, would have enabled shallow water species to become trapped by the outgoing tide. Catches within fishing weirs would have been substantially increased by laying down ground bait such as shellfish. As the tide began to go out, fish trapped within the weir would be attracted to rocky crevices between boulder walls and to banks of seaweed. These entrapped fish could be collected by hand, with scoop nets or with fishing spears. The use of fishing weirs is supported by the absence of shoaling fish, such as herring scad – prolific today – within the shallow water of the islands' inner lagoon. These fish are restless swimmers and would have been caught in large numbers if nets were set in the intertidal zone, but would be unlikely to stay within a fishing weir and wait while the tide ran out. Fish bone assemblages from Little Bay, May's Hill, Nornour and Porth Killer (Neal 1983; Ratcliffe and Straker 1996; Turk 1967; 1971; 1978; 1984b) suggest that inshore fishing was practiced extensively through both the 2nd and 1st millennium BC.

The possibility of the presence of prehistoric fishing weirs within the intertidal zone of Scilly calls for the reconsideration of the intertidal boulder walls on Samson Flats and off the west coast of Tresco (Camidge et al. 2010; Crawford 1927; 1947; Goodwin 1946; Johns 2012; Piggott 1954). These walls have traditionally been interpreted as Bronze Age land enclosures but in the light of the new submergence data, their reinterpretation as fishing weirs should be considered. The construction of fishing weirs does not necessarily involve the construction of obvious cultural features, such as walls, as the modification of natural hollows within the intertidal zone to create or enhance shallow pools would be equally effective. An historic example of such a naturally formed fishing pool is the 'Pilchard Pool' within Porth Cressa Bay, St Mary's.

Throughout both the 2nd and 1st millennium BC, fish-bone evidence from the islands demonstrates that line fishing was used to catch deep-sea fish. Wooden hooks, made from suitably shaped twigs and thorns or compound hooks made from wood, bone and shell have a long history throughout the world and may also have been used on Scilly, although none have been identified to date. The absence of fishing hooks raises questions about how these deep-water fish were caught. One possibility is suggested by Turk (1984a, 69), who noted that a sizeable proportion of bone and antler found within 2nd and 1st millennium BC houses and middens showed signs of deliberate modification. He noted that the majority of long bones were broken in the same way; split longitudinally and then cut down one side to make a rough awl-shaped blade. Turk argues that this pattern of breakage is not consistent with the extraction of bone marrow, as observed elsewhere within bone assemblages. He suggested that this pattern of worked bone, rather than representing artefacts in themselves, may be wasters from a process designed to produce something else, not yet identified. Turk notes that although the bones of a variety of mammals were treated in this way, those of deer were particularly common, suggesting that the qualities of deer bones were particularly sought after. One possible interpretation of this evidence is that the artefacts being produced are gorges, a simple type of fishing hook, recognised as being the prototype to the bent hook (Clark 1965; Hurum 1977). A gorge comprises a small piece of bone, wood or metal that is straight and slightly pointed at one or both ends. The gorge is tied at its middle to a fishing line and inserted lengthways into a piece of bait. The fish readily swallows the bait containing the gorge, but when it swims away or the line is pulled the gorge takes up a transverse position in the fish's throat or belly and it cannot spit it out. Using this simple technology, prehistoric islanders would have been able to fish within the deeper waters of the archipelagos for the larger species of deep-sea fish such as cod, pollock and saithe.

Stone objects found within house abandonment deposits of prehistoric settlements include holed granite boulders. These were deliberately selected from Scillonian beaches for their flattened circular shape, through which holes were subsequently drilled (Robinson in press). These boulders range from 0.1m to 0.6m in diameter, with the majority between 0.15m and 0.3m in diameter (Figures 8a-c). Through analogy with historical collections of fishing equipment from south-west Britain and Ireland, these artefacts may be interpreted as net or line sinkers (Morton Nance 1963, 185, plates 6 and 7, figs 5, 24 and 27). These stones may have been used to weigh down fishing nets, lines and traps. The larger of these stones would have been too heavy to use on nets or lines requiring heaving, but might have been used on nets set on frames within the intertidal zone, or as boat anchors.

Figure 8a Figure 8b Figure 8c Figure 8d

Figure 8a: Large holed stone (anchor) from Nornour, Eastern Isles (Size: 0.46 x 0.32m) (Source: Author).
Figure 8b: Large holed stone (anchor/line weight) from Nornour, Eastern Isles (Size: 0.21 x 0.20m) (Source: Author).
Figure 8c: Holed stone from Nornour, Eastern Isles (Size: 0.20 x 0.17m) (Source: Author).
Figure 8d: Grooved stone (net sinker) from Pendrathen, St Mary's (Size: 100m x 130m) (Source: Author).

Similarly, stones with deep grooves around their centres are found among the abandonment phases of prehistoric houses (Figure 8d). These stones are interpreted in the archaeological literature of Scilly as hammer stones (Clough and Cummins 1988; Dudley 1967). However, comparison of these stones with historical collections of fishing equipment suggest that they could equally be used as fishing weights, with the grooves around their circumferences being used to secure a line (Arlott 1972; Morton Nance 1963, 185, plate 6, fig. 5, plate 7, figs 24, 27). At Pendrathen, Gray identified nine of these weights on a sanded floor surface associated with a stone structure above high tide. The uniform placement of these weights at Pendrathen suggests they may have been attached to a fishing net that has subsequently disintegrated (Gray 1972, 26-27, fig. 8). If Gray is correct in his interpretation, we might imagine that the holed and grooved sinkers found on Scilly may also have been attached to nets and lines and that these were also deposited within the abandonment phases of houses.


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