Rigby’s Encyclopaedia of the Herring

A work in progress with no end in sight


The earliest kitchen middens archaeological record of herring eating and why no earlier herring bones have been found


Beginning in 1848, otherwise known as the Year of Revolutions, Danish archaeologists were the first to develop the excavations of kitchen middens. At one of their coastal sites they discovered the earliest proof of Early Neolithic herring consumption.

100m long, between 50m and 70m metres wide and 1-3m high, the pile of leftovers contained a mix of shells (mussels, in particular) and fish bones, the commonest of which were herring, cod, flounder and eel. Hooks of various design were discovered, but although no boats or nets survived, the abundance of herring bones points to them not being caught exclusively from the shore or with hooks. Some form of seine net has been suggested as the probable technology.

The Southern Scandinavian fish-eaters associated with the middens are referred to known as the Ertebølle Culture (after the village where the bones and shells were first discovered), often shortened to EBK (ErteBølle Kultur. The bones of EBK (or possibly Funnelbeaker / TBK) herrings were found at Egsminde.

The discovery places the earliest recorded herring fishery between 3,000 and 5,000 BC. Just as EBK replaced the Kongemuse Culture (Kongemosekulturen), after an expansion as far as what later became to smoked fish heaven of Rügen, sometime after 4,100 BC EBK was replaced by TBK. This goes someway towards explaining my uncertainty as to the exact culture responsible for chucking the herring bones away.

Herring remains have been found in more recent kitchen middens throughout Northern Europe and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America, but records suffer from the fact that the herring’s fine bones do not survive as well as those of some other fish, particularly in acidic, peaty soil.