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Discovery of Porpoise Bones at Medieval Site Mystifies Archaeologists

The remains were found inside a grave at a religious retreat once occupied by monks

smithsonian.com

Archaeologists were wrapping up an excavation on the English Channel island of Chapelle Dom Hue when they made an unexpected and mystifying discovery. As Steven Morris reports for The Guardian, the excavation revealed a carefully cut grave plot, which archaeologists reasonably assumed would hold the remains of a deceased human. Instead, they found that the grave contained the bones of a porpoise.

The discovery was made at the site of a medieval religious retreat, which was once occupied by monks searching for solitude. The team believes that the bones date to the 14th century, and the remains appear to have been deliberately buried, rather than simply disposed of underground. According to Peter Dockrill of Science Alert, the bones were aligned east to west, in accordance with Christian traditions.

Experts aren’t quite sure how to interpret this strange find. “It’s very peculiar,” Philip de Jersey, an archaeologist with States of Guernsey, tells Morris. “I don’t know what to make of it. Why go to the trouble of burying a porpoise in what looks like a grave?”

People did eat porpoises during the medieval period, but it seems unlikely that the animal would have been given such a careful burial if it had simply served as a meal. It is possible, Morris theorized, that the body was placed in a hole, covered with salt to preserve it, and for some reason never retrieved. He also suggested that the porpoise may have been religiously significant to the monks on the island; another cetacean, the dolphin, is a known symbol of the Christian faith. 

Odd though it may be, the discovery of the porpoise bones is not the first of its kind in the region. In 1958, as Philip Hoare writes for for The Guardian, a porpoise jawbone was found amidst a trove of 9th century silver valuables on St. Ninian’s Isle, off the coast of Scotland. The items were covered in Pictish designs, and appear to have been hastily buried—perhaps prior to a Viking invasion.

“The inclusion of part of the jawbone of a porpoise in a hoard which otherwise contained highly ornate and expensive metalwork has been the subject of some speculation,” according to the website of the National Museums Scotland, which holds the artifact. “It must have had some symbolic meaning which is unclear to us today.”

Other finds unearthed by the excavation at Chapelle Dom Hue include shards of 14th century pottery, a prehistoric stone tool and what appear to be the walls of the medieval religious retreat, Morris reports. The porpoise remains have been removed from the site, and will be examined by a marine expert. But just how and why the animal came to be buried on the island may remain a mystery for many years to come.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer is based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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