When scientists exhumed what they thought was a human grave, they were surprised to find the remains of a porpoise instead.
It was certainly a strange find.
A team of archaeologists had been digging at the island of Chapelle Dom Hue in the English channel. The island had been thought to be a refuge for monks that were in search of a religious retreat. As the team went on their dig, they came across what looked to be a carefully cut plot that they were quite convinced was a grave. Thus, the archaeologists dug down further, expecting to see human skeletons. Instead, what they uncovered was definitely not human.
The archaeologists realized that they had uncovered the skull and other parts of porpoise. As far as the team could tell, someone had buried the porpoise with much care. According to the archaeologists, the animal was buried sometime in the 14th century.
Image by Guernsey Archaeology - YouTube
The pertinent question, of course, is why the porpoise had been buried in what seems to be its own grave.
One possibility is that the porpoise had been a meal for monks on a retreat on the island. Porpoises, after all, were eaten in the medieval times. However, the archaeologists point out that if the porpoise had been nothing more than a source of food, the monks could have simply tossed it into the sea, which was just 10 meters away from the grave. Digging a grave seems to be too much of an effort to simply get rid of leftovers.
Another related theory is that a monk may have purposefully hidden or stored the porpoise carcass. It's possibly that the monk may not have been supposed to have the porpoise, though it's also possible that he had preserved it by packing it in salt and burying it. Either way, he didn't come back for it for reasons unknown.
One other theory, however, looks at a different angle. It's possible that the monks had considered the porpoise to have some religious importance. The dolphin has a special symbolic significance in Christianity, but burying a dolphin in a proper grave wasn't something that the archaeologists had seen before.
Another thing that's interesting about the grave, however, was the way the porpoise was buried. It doesn't look as though it was simply dumped or thrown into the grave. It looked like it was properly laid to rest. The remains were aligned east to west, which follows Christian tradition in laying people to rest.
"It's the slightly wacky kind of thing that you might get in the Iron Age but not in medieval times," says Dr. Phil de Jersey, one of the archaeologists. He also says that in the 35 years of his career as an archaeologist, the porpoise grave was his strangest find. “It’s very peculiar, I don’t know what to make of it. Why go to the trouble of burying a porpoise in what looks like a grave. It’s a wonderful surprise.”
The archaeologists have removed the remains of the porpoise, which will soon undergo analysis. Sooner or later, we'll find out whether the porpoise was simply a meal or was actually spiritually significant.
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