6.2 Hunting of sea mammals

The exploitation of sea mammals is indicated by the presence of the bones of seals, dolphins, porpoises and whales (Ratcliffe and Straker 1996; Robinson 2007; Mulville 2002). The bones of seals are found at almost every prehistoric settlement site investigated on Scilly and must have played an important role in the subsistence of islanders (Ratcliffe and Straker 1996). Seal bones are particularly prevalent at the Bronze Age settlements of Nornour and Porth Killier (Gray 1972; Turk 1967; 1968; 1971; 1973; 1978; 1984b; 1991). Present-day breeding colonies of seals form along rocky coastlines and on islets in the late summer and autumn. We can assume that past distributions of seal colonies, like today, would avoid areas of human settlement, so that seals would occupy those islands and islets least disturbed by people. Seals would most likely have been hunted on the rocky coastlines and islets of the Eastern Isles and Northern and Western Rocks. Seal colonies would probably have been approached by boat, with seals hunted either from boats or on foot. Seals would have provided a valuable source of fat and meat; seal skins would have been used in the construction of boats and to manufacture clothing.

The occurrence of the bones of both adults and juveniles within bone assemblages is suggestive of a seasonal harvest of seals in the early autumn (Robinson 2007). In almost all cases skulls lack facial and anterior cranial bones suggesting slaughter by blows to the forehead with clubs (Turk 1971, 81-6; 1978, 100). Turk notes that the majority of seal bones representing the upper body show evidence of burning and attributes this to the practice of melting down blubber from the back of the neck and shoulders to produce oil (Turk 1971, 81-86; 1978, 100). The importance of marine oils as potential food, fuel and waterproofing agent, is supported by Evans' analysis of residues from pottery from Halangy Porth, St Mary's which demonstrated their use as containers for marine fats (Evans 1983, 37).

The bones of whales have been identified at May's Hill, Nornour, and Porth Killier (Butcher 1978; Turk 1984b; 1991) and dolphins and porpoises at Nornour and Porth Killier (Gray 1972; Turk 1967; 1968; 1971). Mulville points out that it is possible to butcher a cetacean completely without needing to remove the large and heavy bones. She points to recent ethno-archaeological investigations of modern Inuit beluga and narwhal hunting that have revealed that the hide, blubber and meat can be easily separated without moving the carcass from the shallows (2002, 40). The implication here is that only bones used for fuel or for the production of artefacts etc. are transported to settlement sites (Mulville 2002, 43-4). As a result of this butchery and selection process, cetacean bones may be under-represented within prehistoric bone deposits.

It is suggested that the cetacean remains represent the periodic exploitation of strandlings (Turk 1978). However, it is possible that these marine mammals were intentionally beached by driving them into the shallow inshore waters between the islands where they would become stranded by the outgoing tide. Similar hunting methods are documented on the west coast of Ireland to catch basking sharks (Jackson 1932). However, ethnographic accounts from the Arctic clearly demonstrate that whales may commonly be caught in this region from skinboats using basic technology (Ellis 1991; Murdock 1982). Historical accounts from Greenland tell us that a lone hunter in a kayak would not hesitate to chase and harpoon a whale. Once harpooned, other hunters nearby would assist in the killing of the whale. However, numerous accounts testify to the ability of a single hunter, on occasion, to kill a whale single handed with no more than a harpoon, flint-tipped lance and inflated skin floats (Arima 1987, 127).

While it is certain that prehistoric Scillonians would have taken advantage of strandlings, the evidence from Scilly suggests that these islanders had the opportunity, maritime skills and technology to mount an active hunt for cetaceans from shore or from boats. It can be argued that the prehistoric inhabitants of Scilly, who were aware of the use, value and methods of exploitation for all other local resources, would not ignore the potential food, fuel and material source that cetacea represented. Rather than waiting passively for chance strandings, we can envisage the seafaring islanders taking an active role to capture cetaceans.


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