thames discovery programme foreshore factsheet number one


Fishtraps or weirs are artificial barriers that deflect fish, sometimes using the tide, into traps. They may have been used from the mesolithic period until the post-medieval period on the tidal reaches of the Thames. Numerous Saxon examples have been discovered on the Thames foreshore.

Chelsea Saxon fishtrap FKN01



timber posts

reconstructed line of wattle fence

fish forced into trap as water recedes

Exposed foreshore



Falling tide

fish caught in trap

Saxon fishtrap at Chelsea showing funnel shaped plan; schematic showing how fish are trapped on a falling tide.

Materials and form: Most permanent fish traps would have been constructed on the intertidal foreshore where they would be progressively emptied by the retreating waters at low tide. Two sides form a 'V'-shaped structure with a narrow gap at the point of the 'V' where a wattle or net trap was placed. As the water level dropped fish trapped between the sides by the retreating tide were forced towards the narrow gap where they were trapped and could be collected. Some fishtraps may not have been tidal, instead the fish would have been driven into the funnel and trap by people. The sides of the traps were most commonly made from paired, roundwood oak stakes or piles driven vertically into the foreshore with wattle-work set between the paired timbers. The uprights were sometimes supported by diagonal bracing posts to help the structure withstand the considerable force of the tide. Because they were usually constructed of fairly lightweight organic stakes and wattle-work, fish traps can be both hard to identify and are prone to erosion and damage. Remains of fishtraps are preserved in anaerobic deposits on the foreshore but are at risk from scouring, erosion, and damage from river craft. It is also very hard to date fishtraps without taking Carbon 14 samples from the structures. The posts are generally too small for dendrochronological dating. Fishtraps may be visible as two rows of upright stakes forming the funnel shape, which are set at an angle to the river bank; some wattle-work may survive. Identification of funnel-shaped fishtraps is often complicated when one side of the trap has been eroded, leaving a single line of posts which may be confused with an embankment, revetment or jetty. Some Early Saxon timber structures interpreted as fishtraps consist of just such single lines of posts and may represent a different type of trap.

Smaller, portable, fishtraps may have been made from woven willow, hazel or osiers. These would have been placed in the river and fish would have been trapped within the structure. Fishtraps could be very large, those in the estuary could enclose huge areas, and would have netted massive quantities of fish, especially during seasonal fish migrations. The larger fishtraps may have been associated with industrial scale fish processing using smoking, drying or salting to preserve the fish which would then be traded. Smaller traps may have been for local consumption.

Recording issues: Be careful recording timbers that are far from the shore, the fishtraps can extend a long way into the river! A scale plan of the whole structure should be made, with each individual timber located and numbered. This should be located in relation to permanent structures such as river walls or quays where possible. Each timber should be described separately, and care taken to look for any signs of how the timber was prepared or adapted-was it sawn or split? are there axe or other marks? Are there differences between posts that might indicate repairs or other structures? It may be possible to draw detailed, scaled, timber drawings of individual stakes or wattlework. Are any timbers suitable for species, dendrochronological or C14 sampling? Can you be certain the sampled timber is from the structure? A thorough photographic record of each timber, and overall groups, should be made. Record any damage to the timbers, and any evidence for active scouring of the foreshore around the structure, or any other potential or real threats to its survival. What is the relationship of the structure to topographical features such as eyots, creeks or channels? Can the orientation of the stakes indicate whether it was intended to trap fish travelling upstream or downstream? The 'V' will point downstream to catch fish on the outgoing tide, and upstream to catch fish travelling upriver.

Interesting article and further readings: The most useful general article is Salisbury, CR 1991 Primitive fishweirs in Waterfront Archaeology, CBA Research Report 74; available online free from the CBA website Although primarily a book on Irish intertidal archaeology, another excellent source for comparative studies, and an up-to-date overview of research is: O’Sullivan, A 2001 Foragers, farmers and fishers in a coastal lanscape, an intertidal archaeological survey of the Shannon estuary, Discovery Monograph No 5 Several Saxon examples from the Thames are dealt with in Cowie, R and Blackmore, L 2008 Early and Middle Saxon rural settlement in the London region, MoLA Monograph Series 41 See photos of fishtraps at the Thames Discovery Programme Flickr page: this factsheet has been generously funded by the Barbara Whatmore Trust © thames discovery programme 2010

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