While excavating the ruins of a medieval monastic retreat on a tiny island off the coast of the Channel island of Guernsey, archaeologists came across what looked like the grave of one of the religious inhabitants. But when they unearthed the tomb, the researchers found not the body of a monk, but something far more perplexing: the remains of a porpoise.
The team who made the find are more than a little baffled by what they have discovered, in what to all intents and purposes looked like a 14th-century grave. “It’s very peculiar, I don’t know what to make of it,” States of Guernsey archaeologist Philip de Jersey told The Guardian. In the 35 years, he’s worked as an archaeologist, de Jersey has never seen anything like it. “It’s a wonderful surprise.”
The island on which the grave was found, Chapelle Dom Hue, is a little lump of rock off the west coast of Guernsey. Connected to the mainland by a causeway only during low tides, it was once a religious retreat for monks seeking isolation and solace during the medieval period and contains the remains of structures once used.
However, the discovery of the cetacean confuses the picture somewhat. It was not unusual for people to feast on porpoises during the 14th century, but then why would the monks bury the remains of their dinner on a tiny island in which space is a premium? If they really wanted to dispose of the carcass, the logical move would have been to chuck it into the sea, which was only 10 meters (33 feet) from the grave itself.
“If they had eaten it or killed it for the blubber, why take the trouble to bury it? Some effort was made to create a neat hole,” de Jersey continues. He suggests that perhaps a monk was not supposed to have the animal, or maybe it was being preserved. “It may have been packed in salt and then for some reason they didn’t come back to it.”
But there is an alternative, if not slightly more bizarre theory. It could be that the porpoise may have had some as-yet hazy religious significance to the monks staying on the island. The dolphin is strongly associated with Christianity, as a representation of the fish, but this use of a porpoise is seemingly quite novel.
“It’s the slightly wacky kind of thing that you might get in the Iron Age but not in medieval times,” de Jersey told The Guardian.
The remains have been sent off for a marine biologist to peruse, but it seems that perhaps the porpoise behind the grave may never be known.