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Remains of killer whale found at Anglo-Saxon settlement in Norfolk

Analysis of whale bone sample identifies it as being highly likely to have come from a rare predator off the Norfolk Coast.


One of the recovered vertebrae


The Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP), announced today that the whale material recovered from the Anglo-Saxon settlement in 2011 (the main focus of the project’s long-term archaeological excavation) has been identified as highly likely killer whale. Samples from the vertebra were taken to the University of Cambridge, where Zooarchaeology by Mass spectrometry (ZooMS) was undertaken. 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 killer whale or Atlantic white-sided dolphin. These two species cannot be differentiated using the methods, but based on the large size of the specimen and small size of Atlantic white-sided dolphins, it's highly likely a killer whale! 


The zooarchaeology analysis team coordinated by Hannah M. B. Gibbs (University College London) and supported by Gary Rossin (Post Excavation Director at SHARP) and Lucy Sladen(University College London), and joined this year by postgraduate student Joshua Espen (University College London). The analysis of the animal bone material provides a significant contribution to our understanding of the life and values of people living at Sedgeford in the past, but also the role the natural world and local environment played in constructing these. As part of a 5-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. 


The sampled vertebrae


Samples were taken from a location on the bone where minimal damage to the overall appearance and cultural value of the whale bones was inflicted. The identification of this specimen will be included into a dataset that comprises 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. 

Whale bone is regularly found during archaeological excavations in the UK. 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 and 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 strandings to active hunting. The beginning of this work at SHARP demonstrates the impact of utilising a powerful kit of biomolecular methods to further our understanding about past human and animal life in Norfolk.

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