Fangstdyrene ved de danske strande


  • Ulrik Møhl



seal, whale, hunting, danish coast, sæl, hval, jagt, danske kyster, harpoons, stone age, harpuner, stenalder


Seal and whale hunting on the Danish coasts

The background for the present survey is an archaeological account of harpoons by Søren Andersen to be published in KUML 1971.

This paper therefore only deals with those marine mammals which may be supposed to have given rise to the production and use of harpoons during the Stone Age.

In the introduction, the rich late-glacial fauna is mentioned, which through single finds without any archaeological association is known from the then northernmost coasts of Jutland (fig. 1). Even though no settlements are known (only undated single finds of harpoons made from reindeer antler), the presence of an Arctic fauna makes it probable that even in late glacial times hunters occasionally moved about on these coasts.

For the postglacial period, the individual species are listed, their present global distribution and their local Danish conditions (breeding time, occurrence, and modern way of catching) described and the subfossil finds of bones from settlements are treated. By this means the distribution and frequency of species as regards time and place are revealed.

With respect to frequency, it is important to note the broken line on the principal map (fig. 9), which separates the northern area in which the land has risen since the Stone Age from the southern area in which it has sunk. A great number of southern settlements are thus now submerged and have therefore not been excavated. For the same reason zoological as well as archaeological finds preponderate in the northern parts of the country.

The ringed seal (Phoca hispida), of which a small population still lives as a relict in the Gulf of Bothnia, is very rarely met with in Danish waters, from which it withdrew to move further up in the Gulf of Bothnia during the last century.

Also from the Stone Age settlements only a few finds are known. Seven finds have altogether been recorded from Denmark (fig. 2), of six of which are from Atlantic­Subboreal times, and one from the lron Age. The ringed seal was thus without vital importance for the Stone Age hunters.

Right from the Stone Age to the beginning of this century the grey seal (Halichoe­rus grypus) was the most common seal, and it had its known fixed breeding places on sand bars, stone reefs or the shores of small islands.

However, at the end of the last century -and the beginning of the present one- a decline of the grey seal was perceptible (notably after 1919, see p. 302). These seals no longer breed within the boundaries of Denmark, but occur only occasionally in the Danish seas as stragglers from the population in the Gulf of Bothnia.

The oldest find of seal bones from settlement strata is a lower jaw of grey seal from one of the inland settlements of the Boreal period, Sværdborg, in South Zealand. On the basis of this find (and supported by single inland finds from later periods) it is supposed that as early as in the Continental phases, presumably dependent on the season, seal hunting took place on the then remote northern coasts, the hunters rowing along rivers and further along the »Dana river« (the present Great Belt) which drained the Ancylus Sea (the Baltic) and was connected with the Kattegat.

This theory is supported by finds of remains of a paddle and two wooden clubs from a settlement named Holmegaard, which is close to Sværdborg in time and place (the use of wooden clubs for slaughtering seals at their breeding places is well known from the old days and is still in evidence).

During the great Littorina marine transgression salt water penetrated the Danish sounds and belts, the Danish coasts, broadly speaking, obtaining their present shore line. Only from then on is it possible, from the many coastal settlements containing bones, to form an estimate of the extent to which the different marine mammals were hunted.

From these periods (Atlantic-Subboreal and Subatlantic) the bones of the grey seal are the most abundant in by far the greater part of the settlements (diagram, fig 3), and occur in the greatest number throughout the Stone Age.

While the grey seal is thus clearly predominant among the seals, in relation to the terrestrial mammals (red deer, roe deer. and wild boar) in settlements of the same period, seals represent only a very small part. However, at a single, very special sealing place from the Late Stone Age, Hesselø (fig. 9, no. 35), the bone material consists of about 99% af bones of grey seal, of which a very great number are of pups (very few bones of domestic animals are found). Hesselø is a very small island situated in a remote place in the Kattegat, about 25 km north of Zealand. The small size of the island accounts for the fact that no terrestrial game has ever been able to subsist here, but the island has been an ideal breeding place for seals right up to the present, and one of the largest Danish populations of spotted seal now breeds there.

It would be reasonable to consider the Hesselø settlement as a seasonal hunting place, visited during the breeding period of the grey seal by hunters from Zealand, who provided themselves with skins, meat, and notably the valuable blubber (blubber lamps are known from the Late Stone Age) by killing the seals at their breeding place. It is remarkable that in a small bog situated just north of this sealing place, no less than six wooden clubs (resembling those from Holmegaard) have been excavated under a 2.5 m thick peat layer together with flint implements from the same culture period as that of the settlement. It is tempting to associate this find with the hunting technique of the Stone Age, since the site is still a specialized sealing place and since the slaughtering of pups with wooden clubs is known from historic times.

An account of a seal hunt exists from the end of the 18th century from the island of Anholt (Bynch 1801). On this island, which is situated in the Kattegat, the grey seal bred in January-February, and the young were born on a definite stretch of the coast, within an area of a few hundred meters, where they were all lying in a row on the very narrow sandy beach. They were hunted by stalking, the sealers approaching them stealthily along the beach. The pups of suitable age (4-5 weeks old) were slaughtered with wooden clubs. This hunt was repeated every 4th to 5th day for about two months.

The blubber, which was the most valuable, and the main object of the hunting, was distributed according to definite rules among the inhabitants of the island, who used it in their lamps for lighting. This use can be traced right from the Stone Age and to recent times (1917, see p. 317, Phocaena).

This very commonly used sealing technique is clearly seasonal, but in the remaining part of the year, when the seals are more scattered in the waters, it is supposed that the harpoon came into use.

The harp seal (Phoca groenlandica) is unknown in Danish waters in our days, apart from a single straggler in historical time. The three concentrated breeding places of this seal on the ice are well known: around Newfoundland, between Jan Mayen and East Greenland, and in the White Sea east of the Kola Peninsula. From these breeding places the harp seal undertakes very long seasonal migrations, often along regular migratory routes.

It has always been remarkable that in the Baltic during Littorina times harp seals were common enough to leave rather numerous remains in the settlement strata. Notably an excavation of the settlement »Stora Förvar« on Stora Karlsö (Pira 1926) from the Late Stone Age yielded many bones of harp seal; it also revealed when it begins to appear in the stratigraphic sequence, and when it disappears again, and also the ratio between the three species H. gryphus, Ph. groenlandica and Ph. hispida, (fig. 4).

From Danish coastal settlements the first finds are from the Atlantic period, and numbers apparently increased through the Subboreal period, while scattered single finds from the Iron Age and the Viking period have been recorded. It is, however, pointed out that only a few settlements are known from the Atlantic period, and consequently nothing definite can be said as to the earliest occurrence of the harp seal along the Danish coasts.

In the Stone Age this seal was of some importance, as is borne out by two facts. In the first place, the bones (in greatetr and smaller number) are known from 23 settlements (fig. 5); next to the grey seal this is the most frequent occurrence. Secondly, as stated above, the harp seal follows regular migratory routes to and from its breeding place, a fact which sealers will always know how to utilize. In the now raised marine deposits of the Littorina Sea, a skeleton of a harp seal has been found near Närpes in Österbotten in Finland together with a harpoon of bone (Clark 1946:24).

The cause of the occurrence of this Arctic seal in the Baltic, precisely in the warm period, raises questions which have still to be answered.

It has been suggested that the postglacial warm period brought about an unusually strong melting of the ice in Arctic waters, and that the thick layer of melt­water formed had a detrimental effect on plankton production (verbal communication by Dr. Chr. Vibe). This would have far-reaching consequences through the different links in the food chain, so that fish and with them seals (and whales) would move to other regions richer in food. In the Littorina period the Baltic with adjacent waters seems to have been just such an area. The occurrence of the harp seal in these waters during the said periods might thus be explained as an annual migration of the seals in search of food.

The spotted seal, Phoca vitulina, is today the most common seal in Denmark, and the only seal breeding here; it occurs in the Baltic also, but does not reach the Gulf of Bothnia where the grey seal and the ringed seal live, its northern limit being round Gotland. In addition, it is widely distributed along the coasts of Holland, northern Great Britain, Norway, lceland, West Greenland and Western Canada.

In Denmark it gives birth to its young about 1st July, on stony reefs, sandy bars and islets. In contrast to the above mentioned seals, the young are able to go into the water just after they are born, due to the fact that the long-haired woolly fur, which is retained by the young of other seals during the first 3-5 weeks, in the spotted seal is shed in the uterus just before or during parturition. This circumstance gives certain advantages in case of persecution at the breeding place.

The subfossil bone finds from settlements are strikingly few (8) (fig. 6), and everything seems to indicate that this seal is a very late immigrant which has only in the last century grown so common that it has become of economic importance -with both advantages and drawbacks.

As an object of harpoon hunting in the Stone Age the spotted seal must be considered of no importance whatsoever.

On the other hand, the porpoise (Phocaena phocaena) as the only one of the whales may be mentioned in relation to the use of harpoons. Bones of this small toothed whale have been found in so many settlements (23) that at any rate a certain kind of hunting is probable (fig. 8).

In its biology the porpoise shows many features which may have tempted exploitation by hunting, since the fairly large population living in the Baltic in the summer migrates every autumn and winter (November-February) through the narrow Danish waters in large or small schools, in order to find safer icefree seas. Regular migrations and other habits of game will always be exploited by hunters. As far as the porpoise is concerned, such exploitation is known to have taken place for several centuries (according to Tauber 1892 for 900 years, and regulations from 1593 are still in existence).

Special conditions with regard to the configuration of shores, creeks, bights, and fjords along the migratory routes of the porpoise have formed the basis of the capture of this whale in several places in Denmark. Best known and longest exploited (with interruptions right up to 1943) is the locality Gamborg Fjord on the east side of the Little Belt. Here hunting by boat and catching with nets as a final phase have been practised for centuries (fig. 7).

As was always the case, it was the blubber which was most appreciated, and its value as an illuminant has been great here in the north where the possibilities of indoor work during the long dark winter have been very restricted. It can be reasoned that the importance of the blubber or train-oil lamp has increased in proportion to the degree of latitude, reaching its maximum with the polar eskimos to whom the blubber lamp is a necessity of life, also as a source of heat.

Strangely enough, bones of porpoise have never been found at Danish settlement sites in such quantities that mass hunting could be supposed to have taken place; it is probable, therefore, that the bones found derive from harpooned animals.

Other whales than the porpoise are practically unknown from Danish settlement sites, although a great number of subfossil finds, of large as well as of small whales, has been found in deposits from different periods since the last glacial period, finds which must all be interpreted as »strandings« and which like the many finds from known historical times, show how dangerous was the approach to the shallow waters around the Danish coasts.

Even though no bones of large whales have been found at the settlement sites, we may be sure that when a stranded whale had been observed, the soup pots were temporarily moved up to the whale, where the people gorged themselves. The very few instances in which single bones of small-sized whales, as for instance white whale (Delphinapterus leucas), killer whale (Orcibus orca), bottle-nosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and white-backed dolphin (lagenorhynchus albirostris), occur in the culture deposits are also ascribed to strandings and the bringing home of parts of the find, but except for porpoise any deliberate form of whale hunting has hardly taken place.

Ulrik Møhl





Møhl, U. (1970). Fangstdyrene ved de danske strande. Kuml, 20(20), 297–330.