Archaeology

Porpoise Burial by Medieval Monks Creates Puzzling Grave Mystery

The world’s earliest known porpoise burial has just been discovered, and archaeologists wonder why medieval monks placed the marine mammal in a pit resembling a human grave.

Recently, de Jersey and his team spotted the outline of a feature in the soil that looked like a grave.

“It certainly resembled medieval graves we have excavated in several sites on the island, and it was only a little way off the east-west orientation, as one would usually expect,” de Jersey told Seeker from the site.

A few days later, he and his team started to excavate the feature and uncovered a skull, which he initially thought was the top of a human skull. While dirt was removed, however, the skull grew ever larger in appearance.

As it turns out, the skull and other remains belonged, not to a human, but to a porpoise. The discovery is the world’s only known porpoise burial from the medieval era or earlier.

The archaeologists were astonished.

“It was entirely consistent with a human burial, which is one of the most puzzling aspects,” de Jersey said. “The grave cut has been dug very carefully, with vertical sides and a flat base cut into the underlying bedrock. This has taken some considerable care and effort.”
 

Like the beginning of a great murder mystery — the porpoise does appear to have been killed — there is a collection of clues and other information, some of which may have nothing to do with the burial.

So far, de Jersey and his team on the island have uncovered the ruins of a building there erected on an east-west alignment, which supports a religious function, according to the researchers.

“It was quite a substantial structure, small in size, but with thick walls,” de Jersey said.

He added that they have also found a lot of old pottery known as Normandy gritty ware, which was imported to the Channel Islands between the late 10th and early-15th centuries. A priory on Lihou was in use from the mid 12th to the early 14th or early-15th century, but the Chapelle Dom Hue pottery suggests that this smaller island was only occupied by the monks for a relatively short time, probably in the later-14th century.

Evidence for an even earlier occupation of Chapelle Dom Hue was also found, with flint tools going back to the Neolithic Period (15,200 BC–2,000 BC). The porpoise burial, though, is at the medieval level of the site.

The researchers suspect that the animal was butchered before it was put into the ground.

“The bone preservation, apart from the skull, is very poor in our acidic soul, but it appears as though there are various articulated portions in the grave, not in the association one would expect if it was a complete body,” de Jersey explained.

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The monks may therefore have viewed the porpoise more as food than as a revered, sentient being.

“One possibility we have considered is that the ‘grave’ is not a grave at all, but a pit carefully cut in which the butchered porpoise was buried in salt, in order to preserve portions of it,” de Jersey said. “There is contemporary literary evidence of porpoises, or parts of porpoise, being around for longer than it would have been fresh, therefore it must have been preserved somehow, whether through drying or salting.”

Salting of fish and other edible marine life at the time was normally done in barrels, though. The researchers wonder if the large size of the porpoise might have necessitated a different approach for preparing it.

“If that’s true, then obviously it was never recovered, for some reason — or perhaps it just didn’t work as a technique, so they left it in the ground,” de Jersey said.

Medieval cookbooks do include dishes with porpoise as an ingredient. The late-14th century chef’s tome Forme of Cury, for example, contains such a recipe.

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The burial still has de Jersey and his team mystified, though.

“If somebody was just wanting to get rid of the remains of a feast, why go to this trouble?” he asked. “Why not dig just a rough pit, or more likely, chuck the remains into the sea, just a few meters away? It seems an extraordinary way to treat the animal.”

While excavations continue at the site, the scientists are hoping that the porpoise’s remains can be cleaned and examined properly by an animal bone specialist. This work might at least confirm the species and provide an estimate for the animal’s age before death.

“We will have to wait some weeks for this,” de Jersey said, “as it is currently drying out and the bone hardening up before it can be properly studied.”

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