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Beyond Stone & Bone

Hunting Whales, Exploiting the Sea
by Heather Pringle
September 26, 2008

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Iceland chafed mightily against the moratorium levied by the International Whaling Committee on hunting the world’s endangered cetaceans. According to whaling advocates, Iceland possessed a tradition of subsistence whaling stretching back to the 12th century: Icelanders, they claimed, had long depended on supplies of whale meat and had developed a real taste for this fare. Environmentalists, however, suspected darker motives. Icelandic whalers, they charged, planned to sell tons of whale meat into a voracious Japanese seafood market, where cetacean flesh commanded top yen. In 2006, the whalers had their way: Iceland resumed a commercial hunt for whales.

I mention this because of a fascinating archaeological story that surfaced in the Icelandic press two days ago. Along the rocky shores of Steinsgrímsfjördur in northeastern Iceland, archaeologists have now unearthed remains of a 17th century Basque whaling station—complete with a facility for rendering whale fat, a workshop for making barrels for whale oil, and a residence and cemetery for the Basque whalers .

This discovery is intriguing for many reasons. History, after all, is silent on the presence of the Basque whalers in Iceland at this time. The island’s Danish rulers strictly forbid commercial operations by foreigners from 1603 to 1787, so Basque whalers operated well under the official radar. More importantly, however, this discovery reveals in detail how Iceland’s whales were exploited early on by foreign businesses. The 17th century Basque definitely weren’t there for subsistence: they came to obtain two precious commodities in the European markets: whale oil to fuel lamps and lubricate machines, and baleen—a strong flexible material from the whales’ mouths—that served much like plastic in products as diverse as buggy whips and fishing rods.

And this new archeological find fits into a much bigger picture. During the 1980s Canadian archaeologists uncovered major Basque whaling stations sprinkled along the shores of Red Bay in remote Labrador, on Canada’s east coast. Years of archival and archaeological research revealed that at least 15 Basque ships and 600 men departed annually from France and Spain for the between 1530 and 1600 for Red Bay. There they spent the summer slaughtering right and bowhead whales and rendering the fat into oil for Europe. These were important industrial operations, and as Parks Canada nautical archaeologist Robert Grenier explained to me in one conversation we had on this subject, “the Basque had very modern ways to do things fast and efficiently."

What archaeology is now showing us here with crystal clarity is how far back industrial whaling really went in the north Atlantic, and how long humans have been pressuring whale populations. I think this places the modern Icelandic whale hunt in a whole new light – as just one more chapter in a sad tale of exploitation.

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One comment for "Hunting Whales, Exploiting the Sea"

  • Reply posted by Documentaries (November 11, 2010, 2:30 pm):

    super post , and i got to say this blog is extraordinary . Thx for sharing all this infos


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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