Lamprey for dinner in medieval London

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King Henry I is said to have died from eating a ‘surfeit of lampreys’, but there is no excess of these eel-like fish in the archaeological record, as their remains rarely survive. Indeed, traces of lampreys are so scarce that they had previously only been identified at two sites in the UK. Now a third example has been found during post-excavation analysis of a midden uncovered in central London.

Lampreys have existed for 360 million years, pre-dating the dinosaurs, but because they have no bones they tend to leave little trace for archaeologists to find. Their teeth – made of keratin, the same protein that forms hair and nails – also rarely survive, as they are softer than bone, enamel, or dentine. Luckily, though, the waterlogged conditions of the London site where the latest example was uncovered – located near Mansion House underground station and close to the Thames – helped to preserve these fragile fangs (pictured above). The location now joins Coppergate in York and Dundrennan Abbey, near Kirkcudbright, as the only places in the UK where lamprey remains have been found.

‘Almost everything we know about the popularity of lampreys in medieval England comes from historical accounts,’ said MOLA Senior Archaeozoologist Alan Pipe, who made the discovery. ‘It is incredibly exciting, after 33 years of studying animal remains, to finally identify traces of the elusive lamprey at the heart of the historic City of London, preserved in the waterlogged ground near the Thames.’

During the medieval period, lampreys were considered a delicacy, enjoyed only by the wealthy. This could indicate that the Mansion House site was home to a high-status medieval residence – although further analysis will be needed to confirm this. As mentioned above, Henry I is reported to have been a fan (his chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, records the unfortunate outcome of this preference), affirming the fish’s elite associations, while royal connections carry through to the present day: lamprey pie was served at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

Post-excavation analysis of the site is ongoing, and it is hoped that further finds will prove equally illuminating.

This article appeared in CA 346.

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