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Late Mesolithic fish traps from the Liffey estuary, Dublin, Ireland.

An opportunity to investigate in advance of new construction led to the discovery of five Mesolithic hazel fish traps some 6.3m below mean sea level in the River Liffey. Closely paralleled on the continent of Europe they imply a well organised community that knew how to catch fish using the tide, to make wattle-work and baskets and who undertook coppicing on an eight year cycle in about 6100-5700 cal BC. The likelihood of more Mesolithic remains under European towns that have remained attractive to fishers and settlers has considerable implications for Cultural Resource Management. Do we always know how to find and access such delicate and important traces?

Keywords: Mesolithic, Ireland, coppicing, CRM, fish, fish traps, woodland

Introduction

In 2004 the remains of Late Mesolithic fish traps were discovered during development works in Dublin's Docklands (Figure 1). Not only are these the earliest securely-dated fish traps in Ireland or the UK but they are also amongst some of the earliest examples recorded in Europe. Moreover, the remains were remarkably well preserved and their excavation yielded rare and important evidence for woodworking techniques and possible woodland management during the Late Mesolithic period.

The fish traps were discovered during archaeological monitoring of deep excavation for basement foundations on a site at North Wall Quay, Dublin (National Grid Coordinates 317350/2344459) (Figure 2). Monitoring was undertaken as a requirement of the planning permission, following recommendations made in an Environmental Impact Study. The construction of the basement required excavation several metres below present sea level. This was facilitated by the insertion of secant piles and the constant operation of industrial pumps. After the discovery of the fish trap remains, an area measuring 60m east-west by 16m was excavated by a team of archaeologists led by Melanie McQuade. A previously unrecorded Mesolithic shoreline and the remains of up to five wooden fish traps and related features were uncovered at a level of minus 5m Ordnance Datum (1) (Figure 3). The shoreline was approximately 30m north of the present quay wall. It was either the shore of an island within the Liffey estuary, which may only have been exposed at low tide, or was a former bank of the river channel.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The traps were set in the estuarine silts and were located between 1.20m and 13m south of the gravel shoreline (Figure 3). The force of successive tides had resulted in the fragmentation of the traps and the remains were preserved under a build-up of silt. Since none of the traps survived intact it has not been possible to determine with certainty which, if any, of the remains formed part of the same structure. However, it was possible to date them and they all returned Late Mesolithic dates of between 7144 [+ or -] 46 BP and 6932 [+ or -] 48 BP or 6100-5720 cal BC (WK 16556-WK 16560, OxCal 3.10). The dates fall within two clusters (Table 1), but since these overlap they do not represent distinct phases of activity. What is clear, however, is that the site was a valuable fishing ground for a considerable period of time (spanning 200 years) during the Late Mesolithic.

The fishing ground

The five fish traps and the stakes and wattle pieces scattered across the site were the remains of structures that operated on the principle of passive fishing. Fish swimming in with the incoming tide were caught in the traps and were retrieved by the fishermen at low tide, when the structures were accessible from the shore. All the remains were so closely dated that they could have been used by the same or successive generations of fishermen. The system can be resolved into weirs of wattle work, designed to guide the fish, and traps, designed to catch and retain them.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

Wattle weir (6090-5890 cal BC)

Fragments of two wattle fences and a small panel which lay horizontally between them were probably the remains of an ebb weir (Figure 3). This would have comprised two long fences, or weirs, leading to a trap, indicated by the horizontal panel. From the remains it seems that one fence ran perpendicular to the shore while the other was almost parallel to it. These fences were constructed of narrow (13mm) upright sails around which withies were woven. The withies were 5mm in average width and some of them were up to 1m in length. As the tide came in the fences would have directed fish into the trap which was woven from larger rods (25mm in average diameter) (Figure 4).

Stake row 1 and Brushwood deposit (6080-5870 cal BC) were probably the remains of an ebb weir and an associated platform or walkway (Figure 3). The stakes were set parallel to the shore and were an average of 27mm in diameter (Figure 5). The brush woods were on the shore-side of the weir and were almost all laid in the same direction (Figure 6).

The C-shapedfish trap (6080-5840 BC) opened out to the estuary (Figure 3). It was constructed of upright sails, around which bands of three or four twisted withies had been woven (Figure 7). The sails had an average diameter of 15mm and there were a series of larger (30mm wide) round wood stakes around the perimeter of the structure. These stakes may be the remains of fences that directed fish into the trap or they could have been used to secure it into position.

Stake row 2 (5910-5710 cal BC) was probably part of another ebb weir (Figure 3). It was set at an angle to the shore and extended for 25.10m. The stakes were 27mm in average diameter (Figure 5).

The Basket trap (5930-5740 cal BC) (0.60m by 0.30m) consisted of a basket and associated stakes north-west of Stake row 2 (Figure 3). The basket was constructed from rods (18mm in average diameter) which were bound together by pairs of transverse pieces (Figures 8 and 9). Stakes in the surrounding area were probably part of the trap and several of them were arranged in a small circle beside the basket.

[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]

Wood selection and woodland management

Despite the incomplete nature of the fish traps at North Wall Quay, the preservation levels were exceptional and allowed for detailed analysis of the wood and tools used in their construction. Species identifications were made on samples representing at least a third of the remains from each of the traps. Hazel (Corylus avellana) was the preferred wood. The hazel pieces were differentiated from alder (Alnus glutinosa) since they had less than 10 bars on their scaliform plates (alder typically has between 10 and 20 bars) (after Schweingruber 1978). There was only one instance of ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and one of dog wood (Comus saguinea). Since hazel is generally a dry land species it is unlikely to have grown in the environs of North Wall Quay. The wood was probably sourced elsewhere and brought in to the site possibly by boat. The low incidence of insect holes in the wood indicates that it was not gathered from the forest floor or stored for any length of time before being used. This is to be expected since hazel looses pliancy if it is allowed to dry out after being cut (Edlin 1973: 66).

Most of the pieces used in the construction of the traps were round woods many of which still had bark attached. The stakes ranged between 10mm and 45mm in diameter, with the majority falling between 18mm and 37mm. The wattle was narrower and most pieces were between 5mm and 15mm. The consistent size of these pieces suggests that the wood was selected carefully. Furthermore it was cut from trees that were very tightly grouped in age -ranging between 4 and 29 years. There was a distinctive cluster of stakes aged between 7 and 10 years, with a peak at 8 and 9 years (Figure 10). This age grouping indicates that the hazel used in the construction of these traps was on a coppice rotation cycle of 8 to 9 years, with another possible cycle indicated at 5 years.

[FIGURE 5 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 6 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 7 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 8 OMITTED]

[FIGURE 9 OMITTED]

Information on wood working techniques was derived from tool marks evident on many of the pieces. The ends of most stakes had been cut to a point, which was described as a chisel (a cut on just one side), wedge (two sides) (Figure 11) or pencil (multiple sides) (after O'Sullivan 1996). The majority of stakes had chisel ends. In contrast many of the sails of the C-shaped trap had pencil points. However, not all of the pieces had worked ends. A straight break with no tool marks was observed on a considerable number of stakes and several of the sails in the wattle weir. These examples had probably been roughly chopped and then torn from the tree.

The tool marks, or facets, on the stakes were between 15mm and 30mm in width; very similar to those recorded on hazel poles from the Late Mesolithic site at Halsskov (Pedersen 1997a: 138). Most of the facets recorded on the North Wall Quay material were flat, although there were some concave examples. Both clean and ragged facet junctions were observed. There was no evidence for tool signatures i.e. ridging or grooving caused by imperfections on the cutting blade. All of this data indicates that relatively thin bladed, convex, smooth, stone axes were used. Axes of this size are among the smaller examples recorded from Late Mesolithic contexts in Ireland (O'Sullivan 1998: 50; Woodman et al. 1999: 193).

[FIGURE 10 OMITTED]

Discussion

It has long been recognised that fish were a valuable resource which was exploited from early prehistoric times (Clarke 1948). Archaeological evidence illustrates that fishing was widely practised throughout North-western Europe during the Mesolithic. Furthermore [delta] [sup.13.C] readings on human skeletal remains confirm that seafood formed a significant part of the diet at that time (Enghoff 1995; Woodman et al. 1999: 143; Richards & Schulting 2006). The population of Ireland was especially reliant on fish because the limited fauna resident on the island provided little opportunity for hunting (van Wijngaarden-Bakker 1983: 39; Mitchell 1990: 75; Woodman et al. 1997). This dependence on fishing is evident from the marked concentration of Mesolithic material recovered from lakeside, riverine and coastal settings (Woodman 2003: 8-10). Moreover fish formed a significant percentage of the faunal remains from both coastal and inland sites of the period (Waddell 1998: 13; Woodman et al. 1999: 142). The fish species identified at these sites were probably caught using a combination of hooks, lines and traps (McCarthy 1999: 89; Kimball 2000: 37). Such fishing artefacts have been recorded from numerous Mesolithic sites in Europe and from potentially earlier contexts in Australia, Africa and Asia (Goodwin 1946; Cheng 1964; Brinkhuizen 1983; Mordant & Mordant 1992; Lozovski 1999; Pedersen 1999; www.breshire.com; Huge et al. 2001).

[FIGURE 11 OMITTED]

Numerous fish traps are recorded from Late Mesolithic contexts in North-western Europe. These have been found in Denmark (Andersen 1987; Pedersen 1997a: 136-42; Myrhoj 1999: 171-4), Sweden (Karsten & Knarrstrom 2003: 179), Germany (Brinkhuizen 1983: 42-3), Russia (Lozovski 1999: 139-44) and the Netherlands (Louwe Kooijmans 2001: 466). Some comparisons can be made between the fish trap remains excavated at North Wall Quay and those recorded from Mesolithic contexts elsewhere in Europe.

Stake row 2, the most intact of the Dublin weirs, at 25m falls within the range recorded for prehistoric weirs from Europe. These vary from 15m (at the Mesolithic site of Tagerup) up to as much as 200m (from Neolithic contexts at Olyselt) (Pedersen 1997a: 135; Karsten & Knarrstrom 2003: 187). Interestingly the size and spacing of the poles within Stake row 2 were similar to those of the wattle weir at Oleslyst (Figure 5) (Pedersen 1997a: 128). There was no wattle within Stake row 2, where only the ends of the stakes remained. It is possible that the upper structure could have been wattle.

The fragmented Basket trap was just 10m from Stake row 2 and was dated very closely to it, suggesting that these remains may have been part of the same system. In tidal water environments, such as that pertaining to North Wall Quay, basket traps were more than likely used in conjunction with a weir (Brinkhuizen 1983: 21; Pedersen 1997b: 144). However, it is also possible that this weir and basket could have operated independently. Ethnographic evidence suggests that fish weirs did not always have an associated basket (Lozovski 1999: 143). There are also several examples of conical basket traps from Europe which were used without a weir (Brinkhuizen 1983; Mordant & Mordant 1992: 58-9; Lozovski 1999: 139; Louwe Kooijmans 2001: 466). The basket from North Wall Quay was just a small fragment and its original size and shape can be little more than conjecture. However, it does not appear to have been woven in a conical spiral in the manner typical of the basket traps (Brinkhuizen 1983; Myrhoj 1997: 167; Pedersen 1997b: 144; Louwe Kooijmans 2001: 466-9).

The C-shaped trap may be compared with traps excavated in Japan, which date from the final millennium BC (Matsui 1999:154), or to modern-day fish surrounds, examples of which are recorded in shallow coastal waters (Brinkhuizen 1983: 16-18). Its method of construction however has parallels with that used in many prehistoric traps. The bands of withies woven around the sails of the C-shaped trap compare with the hawsers; ropes made from thin twigs twined round each other, which were used on wicker-work fences at Tagerup in Sweden (Knarsten & Knarrstrom 2003:187). Similar bindings of twisted rushes Scripus Sp. were employed in the construction of conical fish traps excavated in the Netherlands (Louwe Kooijmans 1986:11).

Prior to the excavations at North Wall Quay there was a conspicuous absence of Mesolithic fishing equipment from the Irish archaeological record. This has been variously attributed to the inundation of Mesolithic sites (Woodman et al. 1999: 133), the non-preservation of organic material (McCarthy 1999: 89) and the dearth of excavation on wetland sites of the period (O'Sullivan 1998: 59). No securely dated fish traps had been recorded from Mesolithic contexts in either Ireland or the UK. However, mention should be made of two potential examples. These were an arced arrangement of stones and wood, tentatively interpreted as a fish weir, on the Late Mesolithic site at Newferry, Co. Antrim (Woodman 1977; Woodman pers. com.). The other example, which remains undated, was a wattle fish weir found beneath quaternary deposits near Toomebridge, Co. Derry (Woodman 2003: 12).

The site at North Wall Quay must have been a good fishing ground since it was used over a considerable period of time (most likely on an intermittent basis) during the Late Mesolithic. The trap remains demonstrate that those visiting the site were skilled in acquiring and utilising suitable natural resources in order to procure fish for their diet. Analysis has shown that the raw materials used in the construction of the traps were carefully selected and transported to site. They may have been acquired from woodlands managed for such purposes and were almost certainly cut with small stone axes. An indication of the time expended can be gained from reconstruction exercises. In one such case it took a skilled basket maker seven hours to harvest the raw material and manufacture a conical fish trap (Myrhoj 1997: 167). Furthermore the traps would have to have been positioned during low tide when the estuary was accessible from the shore. Once in place they would have had a limited life span. Ethnographic evidence indicates that wicker traps survive for only one or two years (Brinkhuizen 1983: 25). Traps in a tidal environment may not have fared so well and would probably have been in need of constant repair or frequent replacement (O'Sullivan 2001: 185).

If the excavated timbers do indeed represent intentional coppicing it is a remarkably early, but not unparalleled, instance of such. Studies on Danish fish traps have shown that coppicing and pollarding were practised during the Late Mesolithic (Christensen 1997: 151-6; Myrhoj 1999:167). Interestingly, the widths and age patterns of the stakes at North Wall Quay are very similar to those recorded on hazel pieces from Late Mesolithic Halsskov (ibid.).

There was no evidence for settlement on the North Wall Quay site and it was probably not a suitable environment for habitation. However, the people utilising the fish traps would have lived somewhere in the locality and there is evidence for Mesolithic activity in the wider area. Middens have been excavated on either side of Dublin Bay and lithics were recovered around the estuaries north of the bay (Mitchell 1956; 1972; Liversage 1968; Stout & Stout 1992: 5).

Large assemblages of fish bone were recovered from settlements associated with the Scandinavian and Dutch fish traps (Enghoff 1995; Louwe Kooijmans 2003; Knarsten & Knarrstrom 2003). Fish remains were even found within the traps at Zamostje in Russia (Lozovski 1999: 144). In contrast only one fish bone was recovered from the excavation at North Wall Quay. This was a vertebra, and was not positively identified to species. The lack of bone is not unexpected, since trapped fish would have been removed for processing and consumption in settlement areas. In the absence of skeletal remains, an indication of the fish likely to have been exploited at North Wall Quay can be gained by considering the species swimming in estuarine waters. These include herring, whiting, bass, sole, trout, flounder, gurnard, codling, ray, plaice and mullet (Brinkhuizen 1983: 26; O'Sullivan 2001: 227). In addition migrating salmon and eels would have passed through the estuary in the summer and autumn months. The traps could have caught any of these species (Brinkhuizen 1983: 19). Such a variety of species may even have facilitated year round fishing. Furthermore the yield from stationary traps can often be greater than that required for daily consumption (Pederson 1999: 189). In such circumstances it is likely that surplus fish was preserved or traded.

Conclusion

The important archaeological discoveries at North Wall Quay were made possible through Cultural Resource Management procedures. Although badly damaged by tide action and accessed beneath an urban building site some 6.3m below mean sea level, the components of the fishing ground were well preserved and implied an organised settled society that knew how to catch fish using the tide, to build wattle-work and baskets and who undertook coppicing on an eight year cycle in about 6100-5700 cal BP. The North Wall Quay equipment is directly comparable to Dutch, Danish, Swedish, German and Russian examples, and more contacts with the Irish Mesolithic can be expected. Some of these will no doubt be underneath places that have remained attractive to fishers and settlers to this day. This has significance for the research and resource management of the Mesolithic all over Europe.

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank Spencer Dock Development Company, who financed on-site excavation and post-excavation analysis. Thanks are due to site staff and to all those who carried out post-excavation analysis.

References

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(1) The local mean sea level in Dublin bay is 1.27m above Irish ordnance datum (OD), which is Mean Seal Level of the tide gauge at Malin Head, County Donegal (after Synge 1977: 200; http://www.osi.ie).

Lorna O'Donnell, Margaret Gowen & Co. Ltd., 27Merrion Square, Dublin 2, Ireland
Table 1. Radiocarbon results (dates processed by
Waikato laboratory, New Zealand. Conventional ages
are as per Stuiver & Polach 1977, with errors to
1 standard deviation. Calibration is per
Ox Cal 3.1).

Sample Lab Conventional AMS
 Number Date
Wattle trap WK 16556 7144+/-46 BP (AMS date
(hazel) by IGNS
 [NZA-22112])
Brushwood WK 16560 7114+/-47 BP (AMS date
deposit by IGNS
(hazel) [NZA-22115))
C-shaped WK 16558 7116+/-59 BP
trap
(hazel
stake)
Stake row WK 16559 6932+/-48 BP
2 (hazel)
Basket trap WK 16557 6989 +/-45 BP (AMS date
(hazel piece) by IGNS
 [NZA-22114])

Sample Ox Cal 2 %
 sigma Probability
Wattle trap 6090-5890 91.80%
(hazel) BC

Brushwood 6080-5870 93.30%
deposit BC
(hazel)
C-shaped 6080-5840 93.60%
trap BC
(hazel
stake)
Stake row 5910-5710 93.20%
2 (hazel) BC
Basket trap 5930-5740 80.70%
(hazel piece) BC
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Author:McQuade, Melanie; O'Donnell, Lorna
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Date:Sep 1, 2007
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