Tag Archives: fish

Cod Bones and the Fish Trade

Cod bones (cleithra) recovered from the Mary Rose, with a stained modern example for comparison. Credit: Sheila Hamilton-Dyer

Cod bones (cleithra) recovered from the Mary Rose, with a stained modern example for comparison. Credit: Sheila Hamilton-Dyer

So the Upward Sun post yesterday was based partially on a combined ancient DNA and stable isotope analysis of ancient salmon bones. This triggered one of my own fossil memories of a cool, recent case study from England of all places.  Indeed, not far from my alma mater Southampton, which in some ways forms the intellectual antipodal point to Blog World Headquarters (now temporarily ensconced in this hellhole).  So the case study concerns tracking the 16th century trade or acquisition network of cod bones across the North Atlantic, based on a large comparative dataset of bones from many different region and a sample of cod bones from the Mary Rose, a sunken warship of King Henry VIII dating to 1545.  Relevance to the Northwest Coast is unclear but possible.  Bear with me, it gets a little long.  And I’m totally not a fish guy.

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Mercury Rising

Excavations at the Mink Island site, XMK-164., Katmai, Alaska. Source: ADN.com

Excavations at the Mink Island site, XMK-164., Katmai, Alaska. Source: ADN.com

Some news just puts the fear of Cod into you. For example, there’s an interesting study from earlier this year which suggests that rising sea levels in the Alaskan middle Holocene (in the study: roughly 7,000 to 4,000 years ago) released methyl mercury compounds into the nearshore environment (Open Source paper by Maribeth Murray et al., 2015). These then accumulated in fish, specifically Pacific Cod, Gadus macrocephalus, and presumably also in other species which predate upon these cod, such as humans. It’s an interesting preliminary study, but before you think, “Oh My Gadus, Ancient Alaskans were Mad Hatters running amok with mercury-induced neuropathy”, there are some important details to consider.

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Herring Spawn and Beyond

Herring "spawn drying in the sun near Sitka Alaska", ca. 1900. Source: Sealaska Heritage Institute, Richard Wood Collection. http://goo.gl/y8NF2h

Herring “spawn drying in the sun near Sitka Alaska”, ca. 1900. Source: Sealaska Heritage Institute, Richard Wood Collection. http://goo.gl/y8NF2h

Herring are taking Northwest Coast archaeology by storm.  A series of key insights and publications has pulled these little fish into the heart of our reconstructions of subsistence – across the entire coast, and into its deepest history.  It’s an interesting development which highlights once again how prone archaeologists can be to a myopic faith in our received models: salmon and cedar speak the loudest and it turns out we needed an aid in hearing herring.

Herring were valued in two very different ways: as delicious food in their own right, and for their eggs, which they would spawn in prodigious numbers in the nearshore, often on kelp or on conifer branches, which could even be placed in the water by people for this purpose. The spawn fishery would leave little or no durable archaeological evidence, and perhaps has been correspondingly underestimated by local researchers. Eating the fish themselves has left a widespread, robust record, yet one which has also been underestimated.  All this by way of introducing the picture above, which I haven’t seen reproduced elsewhere, showing gobs of dried herring spawn near Sitka, Alaska. It’s from the excellent online photo archives of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Each of those clumps is like a rich, nutrient-dense, yet storable, delicious marine omelet.

The emerging archaeology of herring is too big a topic for a mere blog to cover, but click onwards for a couple more comments and links.

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Alaskan Fish Weir Photos

Screen shot from video of men building a fish weir near Atka, ca. 1946.  Click to see video.  Source: http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cdmg11/id/37038/rec/36

Screen shot from video of men building a fish weir near Atka, ca. 1946. Click to see video. Source: http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cdmg11/id/37038/rec/36

So, still rustling around the weird world of weirs.  The online Alaskan archives have quite a few interesting examples – and, kind of remarkably, a video showing the construction of a weir near Atka, which is on the Aleutian Islands.   The trap in the video is pretty similar to a couple of other Aleutian ones in the collection, which I’ll talk about below. It’s really cool to not only see a more-or-less traditional trap being built (look at the rocks being casually dropped down by the wooden fence!) but the photos also show weirs actually in use. There’s probably a lot to learn from these pictures – as any introductory textbook in archaeology will tell you, the more we know about the behavioural context of a given site type, the more we can reliably infer the cultural context when presented only with the archaeological remains.

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Images of Nootka Island People, 1787

Nootka Sound girl, 1787.  by de Saint-Sauveur, source: LACMA.

Nootka island girl, 1787. by de Saint-Sauveur, source: LACMA.

I found some interesting images at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. These come from a book published in 1787: Costumes civils actuels de tous les peuples, volume 4: Americas by Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur (1757-1810).  Needless to say, it’s one of the earliest publications with NW Coast content, comprising four plates and 14 pages of “customs” of Nootka Island (Nuu-chah-nulth territory). I’m not entirely sure where Grasset de Saint-Sauveur would have got his inspiration from – Cook’s journals most likely?  You can see all the plates from the four volumes at the LACMA (great images from around the world), or you can read and download the entire book here.  But why bother, when I extract the information for you below.

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Salmon species now knowable from vertebrae

Measurement of vertebral height. Source: Huber et al. 2011

Salmon are a crucial cultural keystone species across most of the Northwest,  of very high importance to many coastal and interior cultural groups for thousands of years.  Many archaeological sites are chock full of salmon bones, and the oldest of these are around 10,000 years old.  As a cultural story, the importance of salmon is obvious.  Increasingly though, the archaeological data are also invoked to tell the history of salmon themselves.  The very long-term view of the archaeological record provides  knowledge of their ranges, their relative abundance, their life histories, etc.  These data can then be harnessed as part of conservation and fisheries management of these threatened species of fish.

Each species offers different things to people: some run early, some late; some are more fatty, some leaner; some run in huge compact numbers, others tend to dribble by; some can be caught in large numbers in the open ocean, others can only be caught efficiently in streams.  There’s just one problem with using salmon bones in archaeology: until recently, you really couldn’t tell one species of salmon from another based only on their bones.

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Oregon’s weird weirs

Dense fish trap / weir in an Oregon estuary. Source: Byram pdf @ WARP website

(edit: I completely stupidly mixed up who did the poster under discussion. Apologies all around, fixed the text below)

I mentioned the Wetland Archaeology Research Project (WARP) and their revamped website once before in reference to Nancy Greene’s pioneering fishtrap work at Comox.  I’m glad to see they have another interesting conference-style poster available for download, this one by Robert Losey (now at the University of Alberta) Scott Byram on the topic of Oregon fish weirs in unusual settings (PDF).

If a cow patch strikes you as an unusual setting, of course.

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