3.3 Skeletal representation

Clearly the few cuts are insufficient to postulate widespread beheading or other forms of processing, but heads can be removed by twisting or by chopping between the bones, and also cut bones might be more liable to destruction in the ground. A study of the representation of skeletal elements was therefore undertaken to see whether patterns emerged which could indicate fish processing. For example the over-representation of head bones, as a result of beheading, might suggest that the body of the fish was taken elsewhere. As the Gadidae were the best represented family of large fishes, and the only family from which cut bones were recorded, this was the group chosen for the study. The groups used in Table 2 were chosen for three reasons. Firstly, processing is most likely to be determined by the size of the fish; therefore to divide the Gadidae on the basis of size rather than species seemed reasonable. Secondly, haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus) and ling (Molva molva) both have particularly distinctive bones, whereas certain elements of cod (Gadus morhua), saithe (Pollachius virens) and whiting (Merlangius merlangus) can be confused when the bones are from small individuals or are badly preserved. Thirdly, while the ratio of vertebrae precaudals:caudals is fairly standard in cod and whiting (to which almost all the vertebrae of the small and large Gadidae belong) at around 18:33, the ratio in haddock is about 20:32 and for ling 26:36. The division into large and small Gadidae is based on measurements taken on a large whiting (43cm total length). The skeletal elements listed in Table 2 are those which occurred most commonly.

Element Small Gadids Large Gadids Haddock Ling
Dentale 48 46 3 17
Articulare 28 72 15 14
Premaxillare 45 45 11 3
Maxillare 24 25 8 7
Quadratum 34 21 17 8
Hyomandibulare 10 13 5 1
Angulare 0 1 0 0
Vomer 5 9 3 2
Paraphenoideum 12 37 7 7
Palatinum 5 8 2 1
Ectopterygoideum 2 6 0 4
Basioccipitale 18 15 6 2
Keratohyale 15 24 7 1
Epihyale 11 7 4 1
Cleithrum 3 17 42 16
Operculare 8 19 4 3
Praeoperculare 4 18 2 5
Suboperculare 0 2 2 0
Interoperculare 3 3 6 4
Postcleithrale 6 7 4 1
Supracleithrale 17 23 11 3
Posttemporale 21 10 12 4
Syplecticum 7 6 0 0
Urohyale 0 1 0 1
1st-4th vertebrae 70 51 11 15
other vertebrae precaudals 410 219 165 105
vertebrae caudals 515 117 189 11
Table 2: Skeletal element representation of the fishes of the Gadidae from exacvation at Newcastle Quayside

The analysis revealed several interesting patterns. It is noticeable, for example, that the vertebrae caudals are severely under-represented, especially in the large Gadidae and ling, which is what one would expect if beheading had taken place, with the body of the fish being taken elsewhere. An alternative explanation, however, is that the vertebrae caudals, which are smaller and more fragile than vertebrae precaudals, especially at the tail end, are likely to be under-represented as a result of differential preservation and recovery. It is also possible that some of the vertebrae caudals counted as small Gadidae are in fact the smallest vertebrae caudals of larger Gadidae. An examination of the frequency of other skeletal elements clearly suggests that taphonomic loss is a major problem at these sites. As Table 2 illustrates, the more robust bones, particularly the jaw bones, are much more frequent than the smaller and the more fragile bones such as the angulare and urohyale, and the operculare, suboperculare, interoperculare and preoperculare. This trend for under-representation of the smaller, and the more fragile, bones is again more apparent in the large Gadidae, and can be explained by both differential preservation (often large gadid bones were recovered from deposits where smaller bones had not survived) and recovery (of the hand-picked bones, almost all were from large Gadidae). Unfortunately there were not enough bones from large Gadidae in the sieved samples to exclude the hand-picked material from the analysis. It is interesting, however, that the difference in the vertebrae precaudals:caudals ratio is less marked in haddock. One possible explanation is that haddock vertebrae caudals are perhaps relatively more robust when compared to the vertebrae precaudals than is the case in other Gadidae, although this needs to be tested. The effects of differential preservation can be seen, however, in the number of haddock cleithra, compared to the other bones, a result of the robustness of the commonly swollen haddock cleithra ends. Ling is interesting because the vertebrae precaudals:caudals ratio is so large and in fact all the vertebrae caudals are from Queen Street, so the difference at Crown Court is particularly marked. Unfortunately the sample size is fairly small, so it is difficult to argue convincingly for beheading, and, as is the case with the other large Gadidae, when the vertebrae precaudals are divided into precaudals 1-4 and lower precaudals the majority are from the lower precaudals region, which is not what would be expected if the remains were predominantly from the head end.

Given the apparent extent of taphonomic loss it is therefore not possible at the present time to argue convincingly that the fish bone assemblages represent the remains from processing fish on the quayside. The discovery of two articulated fish skulls (one large cod and one large saithe) found at Crown Court without associated vertebrae provided the only real evidence that some fish, at least, were beheaded.

3.4 Fish gutting

Other forms of processing are even more difficult to determine, though the presence of small Clupeidae, Gadidae and species such as butterfish (Pholis gunnellus), five-bearded rockling (Ciliata mustella) and gobies (Gobiidae) may be explained by the gutting of larger fish. While some of the sandeel (Ammodytidae) bones may also have originated in fish guts, the cellarers' accounts from Durham Abbey, for the 14th century (Surtees Society 1898) show that sandeels were of economic importance during the medieval period.


© Internet Archaeology URL:
Last updated: Thu Dec 16 1999