Fish and Ships

Weblog of the research project "Between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea: Interdisciplinary Studies of the Hanse"

Welcome to the weblog of the research project "Between the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea: Interdisciplinary Studies of the Hanse". The aim of the project is to investigate the economic and cultural connections of merchants from Northern German cities, such as Bremen and Hamburg with the North Atlantic islands of Iceland, Shetland and Faroe during the 15th to 17th centuries. The project is based at the German Maritime Museum (Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum) in Bremerhaven and funded by the Leibniz Association (2015-2018).The research is carried out by four team members, each with their individual research objectives and disciplinary background. With this blog we want to provide information about the current state of our research, and create a platform to make available results and new knowledge. Read more...

German merchants at the trading station of Básendar, Iceland

Bart Holterman, 9 March 2018

The German merchants who sailed to Iceland in the 15th and 16th century used more than twenty different harbours. In this post we will focus on one of them: Básendar. The site is located on the western tip of the Reykjanes peninsula and was used as a trading destination first by English ships, then German merchants from Hamburg and later by merchants of the Danish trade monopoly. Básendar is mentioned in German written sources with different spellings as Botsand, Betsand, Bådsand, Bussand, or Boesand.

Aerial image of Básendar (marked with the red star), located on the Western end of Reykjanes peninsula, and Keflavík airport on the right (image Google Earth).

Básendar was one of the most important harbours for the winter fishing around Reykjanes. In the list of ten harbours offered to Hamburg in 1565, it is the second largest harbour, which annually required 30 last flour, half the amount of Hafnarfjörður (the centre of German trade in Iceland). German merchants must have realised it´s potential at a very early stage, and it is therefore the first harbour which we know to have been used by the Germans, namely by merchants from Hamburg, in 1423.

The trading station was located on a cliff just south of Stafnes, surrounded by  sand. Básendar was always a difficult harbour, exposed to strong winds and with skerries at its entrance. Ships had to be moored to the rocks with iron rings. The topography of the site also made the buildings vulnerable to spring floods, and during a storm in 1799 all buildings were destroyed by waves, leading to the abandonment of the place. Today, the ruins of many buildings can still be seen, as well as one of the mooring rings, reminding the visitor of the site’s former importance.

Básendar also became a place for clashes between English and German traders. Already the first mention of Germans in the harbour came from a complaint by English merchants that they had been hindered in their business there. In 1477 merchants from Hull complained as well about hindrance by the Germans and in 1491 the English complained that two ships from Hull had been attacked by 220 men from two Hamburg ships anchoring in Básendar and Hafnarfjörður.

Remains of an iron mooring ring at the harbour of Básendar (photograph by N. Mehler in 2006).

The famous violent events of 1532 between Germans and English started in Básendar as well, when Hamburg skipper Lutke Schmidt denied the English ship Anna of Harwich access to the harbour. Another arrival of an English ship a few days later made tensions erupt, resulting in a battle in which two Englishmen were killed. The events in 1532 marked the end of the English presence in Básendar, and we hear little about the harbour in the years afterwards. The trading place seems to have been steadily frequented by Hamburg ships, sometimes even two per year. In 1548, during the time when Iceland was leased to Copenhagen, Hamburg merchants refused to allow a Danish ship to enter the harbour, claiming that they had an ancient right to use it for themselves.

Hamburg merchants were continuously active in Básendar until the introduction of the Danish trade monopoly, except for the period 1565-1583, when the harbour was licensed to merchants from Copenhagen. From 1586 onwards, the licenses were given to Hamburg merchants again. These are the merchants who held licences for Básendar:

1565: Anders Godske, Knud Pedersen (Copenhagen)
1566: Marcus Hess (Copenhagen)
1569: Marcus Hess (Copenhagen)
1584: Peter Hutt, Claus Rademan, Heinrich Tomsen (Wilster)
1586: Georg Grove (Hamburg)
1590: Georg Schinckel (Hamburg)
1593: Reimer Ratkens (Hamburg)
1595: Reimer Ratkens (Hamburg)

Ruins of the trading site of Básendar (photograph by N. Mehler in 2006).

The last evidence we have for German presence in Básendar provides interesting details about how trade in Iceland operated. In 1602 Danish merchants from Copenhagen concentrated their activity on Keflavík and Grindavík. A ship from Helsingør, led by Hamburg merchant Johan Holtgreve, with a crew largely consisting of Dutchmen, and helmsman Marten Horneman from Hamburg, tried to reach Skagaströnd (Spakonefeldtshovede) in Northern Iceland, but was unable to get there because of the great amount of sea ice due to the cold winter. Instead, they went to Básendar which was not in use at the time. However, the Copenhagen merchants protested. King Christian IV ordered Hamburg to confiscate the goods from the returned ship. In a surviving document the involved merchants and crew members told their side of the story. They stated that they had been welcomed by the inhabitants of the district of Básendar, who had troubles selling their fish because the catch had been bad last year and the fish were so small that the Danish merchants did not want to buy them. Furthermore, most of their horses had died during the winter so they could not transport the fish to Keflavík or Grindavík and the Danes did not come to them. The Danish merchants were indeed at first not eager to trade in Básendar, and did not sail there until they moved their business from Grindavík in 1640.

Further reading

Ragnheiður Traustadóttir, Fornleifaskráning á Miðnesheiði. Archaeological Survey of Miðnesheiði. Rannsóknaskýrslur 2000, The National Museum of Iceland.


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Newspaper article: Reger Handel mit dem hohen Norden

Bart Holterman, 7 September 2017

Bart Holterman presentated the project and his own research on August 5 in Haus der Wissenschaft in Bremen. Matthias Holthaus was there as well and wrote the following article about it in the Weser Kurier of August 21, which gives a nice overview of the situation German merchants had to deal with when trading in the North Atlantic in the late Middle Ages (in German).,-reger-handel-mit-dem-hohen-norden-_arid,1638338.html


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German-Icelandic trade relations: the case of Eiríkur Árnason

Bart Holterman, 30 March 2017

Trade in the North Atlantic was neither simply an exchange of goods between ports in Iceland and in Germany, nor did the islanders stay at home and wait for German merchants to show up each spring. In some cases, more complex relations between islanders and Germans existed, and in what follows we will present an example from Iceland to highlight the complexity of the trade relations between Icelanders and Germans. Germans were not allowed to settle in Iceland, but Icelanders were free to move or travel to Germany, which some did, and established networks of their own. Sometimes these links can be reconstructed in considerable detail with the help of both historical and archaeological sources. In this post, we will focus on one such case, that of Eiríkur Árnason Brandssonar (c. 1530-1586), sýslumaður (bailiff) of Múlaþing district in the East of Iceland.

Eiríkur Árnason was a powerful man in Iceland, who repeatedly got into trouble with Guðbrandur Þorláksson, bishop at Hólar. Eiríkur was appointed klausturhaldari, the keeper of the property of Skriðuklaustur monastery, located in the valley of lake Lagarfljót about 50km inland from the southeastern coast of Iceland. The monastery had been secularized in 1554, and the now royal property was administered by the klausturhaldari. Eiríkur, whose grandfather Brandur Hrafnsson had been the last prior of the monastery, held this office between 1564 and 1578.

So called Bartman jug made of Rhenish stoneware, found in the house of the klausturhaldari of Skriðuklaustur (image Helgi Hallgrímsson).

In 1584, it seems that Eiríkur settled in Hamburg. He embarked on a voyage to Hamburg on the ship of Jochim Warneke and shortly afterwards married Anna Korfemaker and bought a brewery. The next year he travelled back and forth between Iceland and Hamburg and it is most likely that he was a member of the fraternity of St Anne that united most merchants and sailors who travelled to Iceland. In 1586 he died in Hamburg and was buried there at the cemetery of St Jakob.

There are numerous sources which shed a light on Eiríkur’s contacts with German merchants in Iceland. In the fjord now known as Berufjörður, south of Skriðuklaustur, Bremen merchants (who called the fjord Ostforde) had been trading for a long time. In 1575, a conflict broke out between two of them, Bernd Losekanne and Christoffer Meyger, due to alleged mutiny. In the ensuing court case before the Bremen city council, one of the problems discussed was the ownership of a barrel of osemund (iron from Sweden) which Losekanne had sold to Eiríkur Arnason but which was left in the merchant´s booth, of which Eiríkur as bailiff had the keys. Also, a load of vaðmál he left in the booth was destined for a Hamburg merchant named Matthies.

It is clear that during his time as sýslumaður and klausturhaldari, Eiríkur had been trading actively with the German merchants in the area. This is also attested by contemporary objects. From the house of the klausturhaldari stems a complete Bartman jug of the 16th century, a common pouring vessel of that time, produced in one of the major stoneware production centers along the Rhine (such as Frechen, Raeren or Cologne). It is more than likely that this jug was used by Eiríkur who had bought it from the German merchants in Berufjörður. Another link is the gravestone of his mother Úlfhildur Þorsteinsdóttir which is thought to have been imported from Germany by Eiríkur.

Eiríkur’s connections with German merchants probably went further than that. In 1580 Bernd Losekanne and Christoffer Meyger (who had apparently reconciled) complained about interference of Hamburg merchant Matthias Eggers in Ostforde. Eggers, on the other hand, said that he had a general trading license for Iceland which obviously permitted him to use any harbour he liked. Losekanne and Meyger then replied to this that this was unfair because Eiríkur had acquired that license for himself when he had visited the Danish royal court, and had entered into a trade agreement with the Hamburg merchants, in return for a part of their ship. Eggers was also probably the man named Matthies for which Eiríkur had put aside the vaðmál in 1575.

Merchants from Bremen are known to have entered into trade relations with Icelanders as well, but that might be a topic for a future post.


Friederike Christiane Koch, Isländer in Hamburg 1520-1662. Beiträge zur Geschichte Hamburgs vol. 49 (Hamburg 1995) pp. 150-153.

Staatsarchiv Bremen, 2-R.11.ff.

Staatsarchiv Hamburg, 111-1, Cl. VII Lit. Kc. no. 11, Vol. 3.


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Newspaper article about our workshop in Stade

Bart Holterman, 5 January 2017

A short article about the workshop we organised in Stade about the cultural impact of the German trade in the North Atlantic at the end of October appeared in Stader Tageblatt on 5 November 2016.


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How to recognise stockfish from its bones

Bart Holterman, 22 December 2016

For most readers of our blog, probably the most mysterious part of our research is the work of Hans Christian Küchelmann, archaeozoologist, who uses archaeological finds of fish bones as traces of the late medieval North Atlantic (stock)fish trade. A fish bone found in the ground, however, does not say where the fish once came from or to which fish it belonged. So, how can one identify a stockfish merely by its bones? This blog post will shed a light on that mysterious procedure.

1. Stockfish production

Drying stockfish (rundfisk type) in Iceland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In order to be able to identify a stockfish bone, it is essential to know how stockfish was produced. Luckily, stockfish is made in Iceland and Northern Norway to this day in ways that have hardly changed over the centuries, so in combination with historical sources, we can reliably reconstruct what a medieval stockfish must have been like.

Stockfish is made in polar regions from fish from the Gadidae family where they are hung to dry outside during the winter. Due to climatic conditions this is only possible in arctic regions as the cool weather prevents the fish from rotting before it dries. However, the entrails must be removed before the fish is hung to dry, and the heads are cut off. This is roughly done with two methods: a) the fish is gutted and beheaded, the rest of the body left intact (rundfisk), or b) the fish is beheaded and split in two, removing the entrails as well as most of the spinal column, and then hung to dry. The latter method is called råskjær in Norwegian (rotscher in the Low German medieval documents). As this leaves only a few caudal (tail) vertebrae in the stockfish, most bones of stockfish will come from rundfisk.

2. Species and distribution

Different species of the Gadidae family used in the production of stockfish. Clockwise, starting at the top: cod (Gadus morhua), ling (Molva molva), haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus), pollack (Pollachius virens), tusk (Brosme brosme). images: Wikimedia Commons

Different species of the Gadidae family used in the production of stockfish. Clockwise, starting at the top: cod (Gadus morhua), ling (Molva molva), haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus), pollock (Pollachius virens), tusk (Brosme brosme). images: Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned, stockfish was made from species of the Gadidae family. A trained eye will have no problem recognising a bone from a Gadidae fish in most cases. Due to long travel times and the absence of freezers in pre-industrial times, these fish could only be transported in preserved form, either salted or dried. Hence, a find of a Gadidae bone, especially on inland sites, hints at having belonged to a stockfish.

However, in coastal areas these fish were also eaten fresh, so how do you know a bone is from stockfish in that case? It is necessary to look at the distribution of the different Gadidae species. Three of the species that were used for producing stockfish, namely saithe (Pollachius virens), ling (Molva molva), and tusk (Brosme brosme) do not appear in the Southern North Sea and Baltic Sea. Bones from these three species found on the European mainland, especially in inland areas, are therefore a strong indicator for stockfish.

3. Size

By far most of the stockfish, however, is and was made from cod (Gadus morhua), which does live in the Southern North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Bones of cod could therefore also belong to locally caught (and therefore not dried) fish. So we need another indicator to distinguish a stockfish from fresh local cod. The cod which live around the German shores are mostly smaller juveniles, older and larger fish live further North. By comparing the size of the bones to those of complete skeletons it is possible to estimate the size of the fish they belonged to. Bones belonging to fish larger than c. 75cm are less likely to have been local catch and were probably imported in dried form. Moreover, a high prevalence of fish in a specific size range is an indicator of stockfish, as these were sorted and sold according to size, whereas local catches will likely show a higher variety of fish in different sizes.

4. Bone composition

Because the head of the fish was cut off and remained at the production site one can expect head bones to be absent at consumption sites. Indeed, we find a clear overrepresentation of post-cranial (i.e. bones not belonging to the head, from cranium: head) bones on some sites in mainland Europe. On some archaeological sites in Iceland, for example, there are almost only cranial bones which is a clear sign that stockfish was produced there.

Archaeological finds of cod bones (brown), compared to modern bones (white). The cleithra (top) clearly belong to larger individuals and are systematically cut off on the right, indicative of stockfish production. Image: Hans Christian Küchelmann

Archaeological finds of cod bones (brown), compared to modern bones (white). The cleithra (top), which are located directly behind the head of the fish, but remain when the fish is beheaded, clearly belong to larger individuals and are systematically cut off on the right, indicative of stockfish production. Image: Hans Christian Küchelmann

5. Cutting and hammering marks

The production and consumption of stockfish can also leave traces on the bones themselves. For example, the heads of fish were chopped of in a standardised way, leaving clear-cut chopping edges on the bones of the shoulder girdle directly behind the head. Also, the preparation of stockfish required hammering the fish for a while before soaking it, to make the flesh softer. As we have seen from our own experiences in preparing stockfish, this procedure can destroy or deform the vertebrae of the fish. Hence, deformed or broken vertebrae can be a sign of stockfish consumption in the archaeological record.

6. Isotope and aDNA analysis

Further, more advanced evidence from the North Atlantic stockfish trade can be acquired by applying methods such as aDNA analysis and isotope analysis, which can potentially retrace the remains of an animal to the area in which it lived. However, an explanation of these techniques might be a topic for a next post.

Further reading

Barrett, James H. (2009): Cod bones and commerce: the medieval fishing revolution. – Current Arrchaeology 221, 20-25

Heinrich, Dirk (1986): Fishing and the Consumption of Cod (Gadus morhua Linnaeus, 1758) in the Middle Ages. in: Brinkhuizen, Dick Constantijne & Clason, Anneke T. (eds.): Fish and Archaeology.

Ólafsdottir, Gudbjörg Ásta / Westfall, Kristen M. / Edvardsson, Ragnar / Pálsson, Snæbjörn (2014): Historical DNA reveals the demographic history of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) in medieval and early modern Iceland. – Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 281

Orton, David C. / Morris, James / Locker, Alison / Barrett, James H. (2014): Fish for the city: meta-analysis of archaeological cod remains and the growth of London’s northern trade. – Antiquity 88, 516-530


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