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Pond Life…

My PhD isn’t all about animals that can walk or fly…it also has fish in it. Medieval Fish Ponds were an important part of the lord of the manor’s resources, and there is still evidence of their fishponds visible.

On the western outskirts of Holt (Latitude 53.078597; Longitude -2.8907025) are a series of fishponds. They no longer contain any water, so you might not have noticed them when you drive past – those of you who aren’t local – the ‘maps’ provider of your choice is always available.

This is them today:

Holt FP

Holt FPAP

Notice it is ‘Fish Ponds’ in the plural. Not just one big pond, but a series of smaller subdivided ones. This is so that fish can be bred in one fishpond, and when they are the right size for eating, they can be transferred to another fishpond to make their catching easier.

fishing

So examining medieval fishing and fishponds seems quite straightforward.

However. There are some problems. Fish bones are invariably incredibly small and so finding them in the first instance requires the archaeologist to be aware that they are looking for them. If they are suspected, then the soil being excavated will be sieved, using a method like that shown below:

flotank2

But, let’s be honest…it usually ends up looking something like this once in use…

Flotation1

And then you have to have the collected evidence over to a specialist…

fischbestimmung_sw

Who works out what has been found.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. My research is looking for the fishponds themselves, which don’t all have ‘Fish Ponds’ written across them on the map like the examples at Holt.

So. How to find them? Well, sometimes the medieval documentary records say there was a fishpond which belonged to a certain lord, but won’t always say exactly where it was – because of course at the time – everybody knew where it was.

As an example – here is a case from the Ruthin (Latitude 53.114477; Longitude -3.310576) Court Rolls in 1324: The son of notable Ruthin burgess Cynwrig Scissor and his wife Isabel was indicted for fowling by night with John Trigomide’s son in the park of Ruthin and fined 40s, with 30s of this suspended for good behaviour.

No indication is provided of where the ‘park of Ruthin’ is, but we do know that it had ducks on it, and it was these the two men were attempting to catch when they were caught. The fishponds, with their ducks were here – in the field under the ‘Nantclwyd y Dre’ sign.

RuthinFP

Ruthin FPAP

The idea with my research is that once sites have been identified and plotted, other archaeologists can carry out the research of what the ponds contained – meaning that all the ponds can be examined as one distinct group and their contents compared to each other.

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Si longtemps, et merci pour le poisson

Writing a PhD thesis can raise questions you never thought you would have to contemplate finding an answer for when the research began. I assumed (naively perhaps) that I would just sit down, write about Welsh Castles, show where their landscapes were and be made a Doctor.

Except it doesn’t really work like that.

You sit down, start writing, and then find a reference. This reference takes you off to a book you’ve never heard of – and before you realise it a whole sub-plot has appeared in your research.

Which is what happened to me with the Otters.

It all began so innocuously. As part of my reading I have to look at the medieval extents which were compiled in the Fourteenth century describing who owed what service to the ‘new’ English Lord of the Manor – who had replaced the Welsh Prince after the Edwardian Conquest of 1282-1283. Within them I found a reference to something called ‘Cylch Dyfrgwn’ – with literally translated means ‘Otter Circuit’.

As an archaeologist, I’d never heard of an ‘Otter Circuit’. And, having thought about it, I’d not read about any otter bones being found on the excavations I’d been reading about. Was there a connection between the two?

An ‘Otter Circuit’ was a service which had been carried out under the Welsh Princes, and which was subsequently carried over to the English Lords. Essentially it was a hunting party who travelled around a prescribed piece of land from place to place keeping the ‘uneatable’ animals under control, of which the otter was classed as one.

Just because the animals were ‘uneatable’ did not mean that the event to hunt them was not without symbolism and ceremony. The ‘Devonshire Tapestries’, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum and dating to the Fifteenth century depict an otter hunt in detail http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/d/devonshire-hunting-tapestries/ and, although stylised, the detail of the hunting equipment and methods is clearly depicted. The main piece of equipment, a two pronged spear, continued to be used unchanged well into the Twentieth century.

otterhunt

The lack of archaeological evidence for the Otters from the ‘Otter Circuit’ can be explained by the fact that they were killed where they were caught, so the remains which were not useful were left at the spot. The skins were subsequently used for high-status clothing, and unfortunately these materials have not survived to the present day.

I’ve probably spent way too much time unpicking this story to try and understand the place of Otters in the medieval world, but the data I’ve collected can be used by modern researchers to understand the medieval range of the Otter and hopefully aid in ensuring the continued growth of the population.