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Research project to examine early European trade routes


By Alan Hendry

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Natascha Mehler surveying a German trading site at Gunnister Voe, Northmavine, Shetland, which was used around 1600. Picture: Mark Gardiner
Natascha Mehler surveying a German trading site at Gunnister Voe, Northmavine, Shetland, which was used around 1600. Picture: Mark Gardiner

A TEAM of archaeologists and historians from the University of the Highlands and Islands will join forces with academics from Germany and England on a research project looking at the start of trading links between the Northern Isles and continental Europe hundreds of years ago.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, the University of Lincoln and the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven have been awarded a grant of £779,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the German Research Council (DFG) to examine how emerging economies identified and adapted to opportunities for trade in what is termed early modern Europe.

The research will also be investigating links with other parts of Scotland, including Caithness.

The three-year programme is called Looking in From the Edge (LIFTE).

The UK team is led by Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon at the UHI Archaeology Institute based at Orkney College UHI. She will work collaboratively with Dr Natascha Mehler, from the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven, who is leading the German team.

The UK team includes Associate Professor Mark Gardiner from Lincoln University and a group from the University of the Highlands and Islands comprising Dr Jen Harland, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Paul Sharman, Julie Gibson and Dan Lee.

During the early modern period the development of a world system of capitalist trade gradually extended until it brought much of the globe within its influence. In Europe it led to peripheral places becoming closely tied into continental trade networks, transforming their largely subsistence and low-level trading economies to commercialised, surplus-producing ones.

The research team at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Picture: UHI Archaeology Institute
The research team at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Picture: UHI Archaeology Institute

The project will not only involve academic teams from across north-west Europe but will engage communities and train individuals in various methods of research from archaeology, history and geography. The teams will use archive research, land and sea surveys, excavation of trading sites and study of artefacts and biological remains to examine in detail how the islands of Orkney and Shetland were integrated into a wider economic realm in early modern Europe.

In effect the research will look at how communities were affected and became involved in the very early stages of the global economy that are known today through the mechanism of the Hanseatic League and other trading networks across the North Sea.

Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon said: “This project offers us an exciting opportunity to work as an international team on the little-researched impact of international trade on north-west Europe’s peripheral communities during the period from 1468 to 1712.

"The work will give us an opportunity to look into the mechanisms of early modern trade and how the Northern Isles adapted to a changing economic world.

"How did this emerging international trade change the islanders’ way of making and trading their wares and products? What were the consequences of this rapidly changing and expanding world on the social and economic ways of life for the islanders?

"These are questions that are surely as relevant now as they were more than 300 years ago.”

Skaill multi-period farmstead at Rousay in Orkney. Picture: Bobby Friel / Takethehighview
Skaill multi-period farmstead at Rousay in Orkney. Picture: Bobby Friel / Takethehighview

Dr Mark Gardiner said: “The east coast of England, with its major ports on the Humber and around the Wash, played an important role in fishing and trading. It looked both to the Hanse ports of continental Europe and the communities of the North Atlantic.

"We will be studying historical sources and using excavation to show how the Northern Isles of Scotland were brought into these trading networks of early modern Europe.”

Dr Natascha Mehler said: "In recent years, German trade with the North Atlantic islands has been studied in more detail and our knowledge about trade mechanisms and the cultural impact of this trade has increased considerably. But the focus of recent projects has been mainly on Iceland and its role within the network of the Hanseatic League.

"This new project now allows us to zoom into Orkney and Shetland and put into context the enterprise of Bremen and Hamburg merchants who travelled to the Northern Isles.”


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