Major New International Research Project to Investigate Early Modern Trade Routes

Natascha Mehler surveying the German Trading site at Gunnister Voe, Northmavine, Shetland used around 1600. Photo Mark Gardiner

A team of archaeologists and historians from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, 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 undertake a major international research project into how emerging economies identified and adapted to opportunities for trade in early modern Europe.

The three-year programme is entitled 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, who 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 team from the University of the Highlands and Islands comprising Dr Jen Harland, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Paul Sharman, Julie Gibson and Dan Lee.

Skaill multiperiod farmstead, Rousay, Orkney. Photo Bobby Friel @Takethehighview

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 as well, it led to peripheral places becoming closely tied into continental European trade networks, transforming their largely subsistence and low-level trading economies to commercialised, surplus-producing ones.

This exciting European project will not only involve academic teams from across northwest Europe, but will also engage local communities and train individuals in various methods of research from archaeology, history and geography. The research teams will use archive research, land and sea surveys, excavation of trading sites, 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 we know today through the mechanism of the Hanseatic League and other trading networks across the North Sea.

17th century storehouse, St Marys, Orkney

Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon said, “This project offers us an exciting opportunity to work as an international team with communities in Orkney, Shetland, Germany and Norway on the little-researched impact of international trade on north-west Europe’s peripheral communities during the period from 1468–1712. 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? All questions that are surely as relevant now as they were more than 300 years ago.”

Dr Mark Gardiner continued, “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.”

The research team at UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney College, with Professor Neil Simco, Vice-Principal (Research and Impact) of the UHI, and Professor Jane Downes, Head of the UHI Archaeology Institute

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.”


Hanseatic League: A medieval organisation of mainly North German merchants aiming to represent their common interests and to secure their trading operations abroad. It´s main area was the Baltic Sea and the North Sea where the League was established in numerous towns and cities such as London and Bergen. During the course of the 15th century, it expanded into the North Atlantic.

The significance of 1468: This was the date that Orkney and Shetland passed from Norwegian to Scottish control. 

Early Modern period: c 1500 to c 1780, spanning significant changes in religion, society, work and trade, bracketed by the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

4 thoughts on “Major New International Research Project to Investigate Early Modern Trade Routes

  1. tesswild51 Thursday, February 20, 2020 (11:13am) / 11:13 am

    So interesting, Sean!

  2. Sally Hallam Friday, February 21, 2020 (1:10pm) / 1:10 pm

    Sounds interesting! I visited Stromness Museum last week and had a look at a file on pirates and privateers. The storehouse at St Mary’s was attacked in June 1694 by French Privateers and emptied of goods. They sailed away before locals could stop them apparently.

  3. Ruth Furber Saturday, February 22, 2020 (3:41pm) / 3:41 pm

    I would love to become involved, how would I go about doing so?

    • seanlisle1 Monday, February 24, 2020 (9:22am) / 9:22 am

      Hi Ruth, Thanks for your message. If you want to get involved then send an email to Mary at

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