Analysis of ancient ceramics reveals the history of the Basque whalers

Analysis of ancient ceramics reveals the history of the Basque whalers

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The whale fishing It has undoubtedly been one of the most productive activities on the Biscayan coast during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Basque fishermen crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland and Labrador (Canada) and once the whale was caught, its precious oil was extracted. This was introduced in wooden barrels and were transported back to the Basque Country where it was sold in Spain and other places in Europe.

Before your trade, fat was stored in large ceramic jars in the docks of the Basque ports to be thus ready to be distributed.

Recent excavations at a site in Lekeitio have found a winery dating from the 16th-17th century related to the trade and storage of whale oil.

A team from the University of the Basque Country (UPV / EHU) has analyzed organic residues preserved in archaeological samples, specifically five ceramic fragments belonging to five different jars extracted from the Lekeitio site.

The porous matrix of ceramics makes them ideal materials for those specific compounds (known as biomarkers) of certain foods or materials such as animal or vegetable fats to be preserved for hundreds and even thousands of years.

In this way, "the analysis of fragments of vessels reveals the use that was given to these materials in the past, allowing the discovery of relevant information on ancient traditions", explains Laura Blanco Zubiaguirre, author of the study.

The scientists extracted the lipid content of 1 g of the fragments of each ceramic sample and the analysis of the extracts has been performed using chromatographic techniques such as gas coupled to mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and high resolution liquid coupled to a quadrupole time of flight mass spectrometer (HPLC-ESI-QToF ).

"The function of these equipment is to chromatographically separate the different lipid organic compounds present in the ceramics and fragment them and identify these fragments by mass spectrometry," says the UPV / EHU researcher.

In order to correctly identify and confirm the whale oil presence, four fresh samples of blubber from various species of whale have been analyzed.

"These samples - indicates Blanco - have been subjected to the same analysis procedure as archaeological samples to establish a characteristic lipid profile of each species and to be able to compare it later with the results obtained in archaeological ceramics."

Recognize the genus of hunted whale

According to the results, published in the Microchemical Journal, the lipid content can be classified according to the gender of the whale. That is, the species of the genus Balaenoptera have a similar triglyceride and fatty acid profile, while the profiles of the species of the genera Megaptera and Phocoena are completely different.

Therefore, “it is possible to know the genus of the whales whose fat and oil were extracted and stored in the Lekeitio jars by analyzing the ceramic fragments”, points out Laura Blanco.

"Once the archaeological samples have been analyzed, we have observed that their lipid profile matches perfectly with that of the species belonging to the genus Balaenoptera", he indicates.

However, the historical archives indicate the fishing of the boreal whale and the right whale, belonging to the genera Balaena and Eubalaena respectively, as the most common in the area of ​​Canada.

Therefore, "it is necessary to carry out the analysis of fresh whale blubber of these genera, to compare their lipid profile with that of the species analyzed in this work and thus study their differences and similarities," says Blanco.

"The data obtained in the present work have confirmed that the ceramic jars found in the Lekeitio deposit were actually used to store whale oil and, furthermore, this oil could possibly belong to whales of the genus Balaenoptera, among others."

Therefore, "the application of various analytical techniques is of utmost importance to obtain as much information as possible about archaeological samples," concludes Laura Blanco.


After studying History at the University and after many previous tests, Red Historia was born, a project that emerged as a means of dissemination where you can find the most important news of archeology, history and humanities, as well as articles of interest, curiosities and much more. In short, a meeting point for everyone where they can share information and continue learning.

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