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Hanseatic and English Trade in the North Atlantic

In the period between 1400 and 1700 English and German merchants from the Hanseatic ports made regular voyages to the Northern Isles of Scotland, the Faroes and Iceland to obtain fish for the European markets. The German vessels largely gathered their supplies by exchanging cloth and meal for wind-dried cod and whiting caught by local fishermen. The English, increasingly excluded from the main trading centres by the Hanseatic merchants, tended to catch their own fish, though they too supplemented their catches with dried fish obtained by barter.

Svínanes in the West Fjords is now an abandoned farmstead. Nearby lay the site of a building associated with Hanseatic trade
The arrival of these trading vessels from England and north German had a radical effect on the local economy. Though trade had been conducted by Norwegians, the appearance of a greater number of vessels in the fifteenth century transformed the demand for fish. The economies of the north Atlantic islands were increasingly directed towards to supplying the foreign traders in return for food, clothing and artefacts. In Iceland the earlier trading sites seem to have fallen out of use as they were not suitable for the deeper-draught vessels used by fishermen and merchants from the south. New trading sites were established, particularly in Snæfellsnes and the West Fjords (Vestfirðir).

Survey work in Iceland undertaken during four seasons in 2006, 2007 and 2008 has covered the main fishing areas on the west of the country, in Reykjanes and the west coast including the West Fjords. Sites have been located from historical records, place-names and through oral tradition. Twelve sites have now been surveyed in detail using differential GPS and others with less significant remains have been recorded more superficially.
A digital terrain model of Kumbaravogur near Bjarnarhöfn in Snæfellsnes
The field project undertaken in conjunction with Natascha Mehler of the Römisch-Germanische Kommission of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut and the University of Vienna, and my colleague, Conor Graham at Queen’s University, is initially locating and recording sites associated with fishing and trade in Iceland. Many of these are located in remote locations in Snæfellsnes and the West Fjords and we have been assisted in our fieldwork by equipment from the Fornleifastofnun Íslands.

Preliminary articles based our initial work in Iceland appeared in Current World Archaeology and in Archäologie in Deutschland in autumn 2006 and early 2007 respectively. A more detailed account has been published in Germania (85-2).
Conor Graham surveying at Reykjafjörður in the West Fjords

The fieldwork in 2008 has completed our initial survey in the West Fjords and all preliminary study. The same year we also began work to Shetland so that we will be able to compare the operation of trade across a number of the north Atlantic islands.

The initial results of our field will be made available on-line. A summary of our work at Gunnister is available here.

The results of our survey on Papa Stour are available in the first of the OITIS Field Reports.

Mark Gardiner