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Cod bones from Mary Rose reveal globalised fish trade in Tudor England

Posted on 10 September 2015

Cod bones found in the wreck of the Tudor warship Mary Rose have revealed that 16th Century fisherman plied their trade in surprisingly distant waters, archaeologists from the University of York have helped establish.

The Mary Rose as depicted in the Anthony Roll.

New analysis shows the warship’s dried fish provisions were sourced from as far away as Icelandic and possibly even transatlantic waters - despite England having well developed local fisheries by the 16th Century.

The research team say that the findings show how naval provisioning played an important role in the early expansion of the fish trade overseas, and how that expansion helped fuel the growth of the English navy.

Commercial exploitation of fish and the growth of naval sea power were mutually reinforcing aspects of globalisation in Renaissance Europe, they say.

The Mary Rose, a former flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet, mysteriously sank in the Solent channel while heading to battle with an invading French fleet in 1545, taking almost all of its crew – over 400 men – down with it, as well as a full store of provisions. Rediscovered in the 1970s and raised in 1982, the remains are an extraordinary time capsule of naval life during the Tudor period.

Among the remains of the ship’s supplies were thousands of bones from dried or salted cod from casks and baskets – staples of Tudor naval diet. The researchers took a small selection of eleven bones from different holds of the ship, and analysed them using two techniques: stable isotope analysis, which reflects the diet and environmental conditions of the fish based on the bone’s protein chemistry, and ancient DNA analysis, which reflects genetic drift, gene flow and natural selection.

Separately, the techniques gave very broad answers, but when cross-referenced with each other and the historical record they provided researchers with increasingly reliable evidence for which waters the cod had been fished from almost 500 years ago.

The best indication for three of the samples was that they were fished in the northern North Sea, possibly the Scottish Northern Isles, where there were known fisheries that produced dried cod preserved in salt.  Another seven of the samples probably came from waters off the cost of Iceland.

One bone sample appeared to have come from the other side of the Atlantic. While not definitive, the most likely evidence pointed to Newfoundland, an island off the northeast Canadian coast famous for its historical cod fishery.

Dr David Orton, lecturer in Zooarchaeology in the Department of Archaeology at York, said: "To me, the key achievement of the study is the way we were able to bring together two completely unrelated techniques to identify the sources of the Mary Rose's provisions.

“Combining the two worked better than we'd dared to hope - really letting us narrow the possibilities down.

“The likely Newfoundland result is particularly exciting - we knew that Europeans were fishing off the Canadian coast by the early 16th century, but it's quite a surprise that this fishery was probably already playing a role in supplying Henry VIII's navy by 1545."

The study, led by researchers from the Universities of Hull and Cambridge, with collaboration from York, is published in the open access journal Royal Society Open Science.‌