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[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #16: Barbel

March 18, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here. Today’s is our first fish.

A picture of a barbel
Barbel (Barbus barbus). Image by Neil Philips from CC-BY 2.0


Barbus barbus (Linnaeus, 1758)

A freshwater fish in the carp family, the largest and most diverse of all vertebrate families. Adult barbels are usually 40-60 cms long, but can grow up to 100cms. The species is named for the four long feelers around its mouth. It is found in flowing water, especially where the bottom sediment is sandy or stony. It is an indigenous species that most likely colonised post-glacial Britain via the former land bridge to Europe. They were mainly distributed in eastern England, but there have been introductions to western England in more recent times. They are more active in twilight than during the  day, and eat molluscs, crustaceans, worms and insect larvae. It is one of the dominant species of ninth-century Coppergate in York, and its decline in representation there may be an indicator of a decline in water quality. 

Barbel roe are poisonous, and can cause stomach upset. It is possible that adult barbel flesh is also toxic during the spawning season.

Barbel on the Archaeological Fish Resource

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