Wednesday September 20, 2017

Medieval monks buried a porpoise and archaeologists have no idea why

A common porpoise was found by archaeologists on Chapelle dom Hue in the English Channel in what appears to be a formal grave.

A common porpoise was found by archaeologists on Chapelle dom Hue in the English Channel in what appears to be a formal grave. (Philip de Jersey)

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Story transcript

What's the purpose of burying a porpoise?

That's the question archaeologist Philip de Jersey is asking after he and his team discovered what appears to be a grave for the marine mammal on the island of Chapelle Dom Hue in the English Channel.

It's believed that the grave, discovered on the site of a retreat for Benedictine monks, dates back to medieval times.

The blubber-filled sea creature was considered a delicacy in the fourteenth century. But why it was buried in such a careful way is unclear.

As It Happens guest host Helen Mann spoke with de Jersey about the discovery and different theories about its origins. Here is part of their conversation.

Philip de Jersey, what were you doing when you stumbled across this "burial site"?

There was a tiny bit of wall visible on the surface of the island, and we've been monitoring it for quite a few years now. Essentially we were looking for more remains of this structure, this building, which, indeed, we found.

We also continued to trench through the centre of this little island, partly because we knew there was a prehistoric aspect to it — a much earlier aspect to it from about 5,000 years ago.

We got a flint that had been knapped on the island from then. Then we came across what, to all intents and purposes, looks like a grave. When we got down to it, got down to the top of this feature, I remember looking at it and thinking, "I wouldn't be that surprised if there was a body in there." A human body, not an animal.

Chapelle dom Hue 1

Archaeologists dug a trench through the centre of Chapelle dom Hue in search of medieval artifacts. (Philip de Jersey)

How soon did you realize what you were actually looking at?

Very often, when you dig burials as we do from time-to-time, the top of the skull is what you get to first. If a body is lying in a grave, it tends to be the highest point that survives. I got to what I thought might be this, but it became a very strange shape and clearly was not a human skull. [It was] something much bigger than that.

As we gradually took out the fill of this feature, we revealed the whole of the skull and various other bones as well, at which point it was clearly not human. But we were still pretty puzzled as to what it was. So, I did some quick research and phoning around specialists and so on, and it's what we call a harbour or common porpoise.

Philip de Jersey

Philip de Jersey is an archaeologist for the States of Guernsey. (Philip de Jersey)

What went through your mind in that moment?

All sorts of things. Basically puzzlement, really, and somewhat a sense of disbelief. You can think of reasons why someone might've buried a porpoise. They did eat them in the medieval period. They were actually quite a delicacy. Once you've butchered it and got as much meat and blubber off it that you could use, you might bury it.

But you wouldn't normally, I wouldn't have thought, go to the trouble of digging such a neat grave [that is] actually cut down into the granite. They've gone to considerable efforts to excavate this feature and they've given it a nice flat base and then put this animal in it

Surely the sensible thing if you wanted to get rid of the remains would just be to go and drag it down onto the beach, let the seagulls and the other marine creatures and the high tide just take it away and deal with it.

Chapelle dom Hue 2

The porpoise appears to have been buried in a formal fashion, with the body laid neatly in a near East-West orientation. (Philip de Jersey)

That makes a lot of sense. So, given that and the obvious care that was taken in preparing this grave site, what are your theories?

One possibility is: porpoise may have been one of those animals that you weren't really supposed to have or to eat unless you were a pretty special person. In this case, if some monk had gotten a hold of it, he probably ought to have declared it to his abbot, so that the posher ones — the higher ranking clergy or whatever who were present around the island or nearby — could have it. That's one possibility. You could argue he was hiding the evidence.

Where are the porpoise remains now?

The porpoise remains are in my office now awaiting specialist attention. What's left of the bone actually dries out and hardens up. It's very difficult to work with until it's hardened up somewhat because at the moment it's quite soft and pliable. But it'll harden up and then we can clean it properly and get someone to have a closer look at it.

Once that research is done, will you be returning the porpoise to it's final resting place?

It's quite a nice idea, actually. There used to be a very bad archaeological tradition of chucking everything like this in cardboard boxes for future research. And I can see an argument for that. But the sentimental side of me would quite like to put it back in its last resting place. Then, who knows, someone else can dig it up and be puzzled by it in a few hundred years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Philip de Jersey.