The grey whale of Wijster
in Drenthe, the Netherlands

auditory bulla or bulla tympanica of a gray whale or grey whale Eschrichtius robustus from Wijster in Drenthe the Netherlands

Around 1960 there was an excavation near Wijster, a little village in the eastern part of the Netherlands, of a settlement from the Roman times, dated during the 2nd - 4th centuries after Christ. There were at least 20 farms and in between them eighteen animal burials. Most of them were horses but some of them contained cattle bones. The animal burials probablyhad an ritual function. In most burials only teeth had resisted. The animal remains were collected from each separate burial, and stored in cardboard boxes. These boxes ended up in the Northern Archeological Depot (NAD) in Nuis (province of Groningen). In 2018 a NAD employee opened one of the boxex of horse burial 1261. He found a strange little hard bone that he did not recongnize. This was the start of a search to identify the bone. It soon became clear that it was an auditory bulla or bulla tympanica of a whale. A further identification became difficult through the fact that the big natural history collections in the Netherlands have only a limited number of bullae tympanicae to identify the item to species. But luckely, the item could be identified at the famous collection of Vonk on Texel as an auditory bulla of a grey whale ( Eschrichtius robustus, also known as gray whale).

Picture of gray whale or grey whale Eschrichtius robustus

Nowadays grey whales only appear in the Pacific Ocean, but in historical times they also appeared in the Northern Atlantic. They are known at the European side of the Northern Atlantic from the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Spain. From the American side of the Northern Atlantic they are known from New York till Florida. The grey whale became extirpated in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. In the Western part they dissappeared ca. AD 1700. Grey whales do eat by taking a mouth full of sediment of the bottom of the sea. They filter out all kinds of little animals with their baleens, like mussels, lobsters, crabs and starfish.

An auditory bulla or bulla tympnica is made of very hard and dense bone, comparable in structure with ivory. Together with its special appearance and special form it is not surprising that the Wijster inhabitans saw something special in it and sacrificed it to the gods. It is most most probably that the bulla tympanica orginates from a stranded whale.

A view on Wijster, a village in Drenthe, the Netherlands, during Roman times

Wijster during Roman times

Four more grey whale bones were found in archeological contexts in the Netherlands. All of them are from the Iron Age or the Middle Ages, with the youngest dated between AD 1000 and 1200. The most remarkable object is a weaving sword made from a grey whale bone. It was found in the terp of Rottum (province of Groningen). Beside the grey whale bones als also Northern rightwhale and finwhale bones from this period were found.

Wijster is one of the most important Roman period archaeological sites from in the Northern Netherlands. The current inhabitants of Wijster are really proud on the site and for that reason constructed a little memorial model of the Roman village with an information panel on the site. You can visit these at the Beilenerweg at the height of house number 37.


The top image shows the bulla tympanica of a grey whale from horse burial 1261 in Wijster. Image from Prummel et al (2018): Een gehoorkapsel van een grijze walvis (Eschrichtius robustus) uit Wijster (Dr.). Paleo-aktueel 29: 43-49.