Killer whale in Norfolk

Whale bone from Anglo-Saxon settlement at Sedgeford, England, identified as that of rare predator.



The Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) announced today that whale material previously recovered in from the site's Anglo-Saxon settlement is highly likely killer whale.


Samples from the vertebra were taken to the University of Cambridge to be subjected to Zooarchaeology by Mass spectrometry (ZooMS). ZooMS is a quick and efficient method that assesses peptide sequences in protein collagen to identify material by species. The ZooMS identified the SHARP specimen as either a killer whale or an Atlantic white-sided dolphin. Though the two species cannot be differentiated using these methods, the large size of the specimen and small size of Atlantic white-sided dolphins, means it is highly likely killer whale.


The analysis of the animal bone material provides a significant contribution to our understanding of the life and values of the people who lived at Sedgeford, and of their relationship to the natural world and local environment. For though whale bone is regularly found during archaeological excavations in the UK, the specimens are often worked or fragmented, rendering species identification impossible. As a result, little is known about which species were present in British waters in the past, or whether active whaling was frequently undertaken.


Zooarchaeological whale bone remains and artefacts provide the opportunity to study the historical ecology of whale populations, transforming our understanding of human-whale interactions, from the use of stranded animals to active hunting. The identification of this specimen will be included into a dataset of over 500 specimens from the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Norway, and Iceland. The integration of the Sedgford sample will be essential as it provides the opportunity to analyse material from the UK.


This work demonstrates the impact of utilising a powerful kit of biomolecular methods to further our understanding of past human and animal life in Norfolk. It is just the latest in a raft of discoveries by SHARP, which was set up in 1996 by Archaeology Worldwide's co-founder Neil Faulkner (1958-2022) with the objective of investigating and understanding the entire range of human settlement and land-use in a typical north-west Norfolk parish. Its work to date has included excavations on Late Neolithic, Iron Age and Roman sites, investigations of the medieval parish church and two medieval manors, as well as a First World War aerodrome. However, the project’s main focus has centred on an Anglo-Saxon settlement and cemetery and, in recent years, a unique complex of malting houses dating to the 8th century AD. Academic and commercial archaeologists collaborate with volunteers and students in a citizen science approach; increasing scientific knowledge and supporting public participation in scientific research.


SHARP supports a variety of on-site excavation and post-excavation teams, including the zooarchaeology analysis team coordinated by Hannah M. B. Gibbs (University College London) and supported by Gary Rossin (Post Excavation Director at SHARP, and designer here at AWW) and Lucy Sladen (University College London), and joined this year by postgraduate student Joshua Espen (University College London).


As part of a five-year plan and in conjunction with the aims of SHARP to support open research and education, the zooarchaeological team supports the analysis of material by postgraduate and PhD students. This year, the analysis of animal bones recovered from the site has also been supported by work by Youri van den Hurk (Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Science Museum, Trondheim Norway) and his supervisor Dr James Barret (Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Science Museum, Trondheim Norway) who have undertaken analysis of the protein collagen recovered from the whale bone specimen to identify the species.


To lend your support to the sterling work being undertaken by SHARP, or to get involved please click here.


Image: One of the vertebrae recovered at SHARP

Credit: SHARP 2022