In late summer 2017, a team of archaeologists led by Philip de Jersey were excavating a Medieval retreat when they discovered a mysterious grave in the channel islands. Located on the island of Chapelle Dom Hue off the island of Guernsey between England and France, the medieval porpoise grave was a significant find. The archaeologists weren't sure what to make of the grave on Guernsey because they had never encountered anything like it in the past.
What makes the porpoise burial so strange is that its purpose is unknown. The people who lived on the island likely had something to do with it, but no one knows why they would make such an effort to entomb the animal. During medieval times it was not common practice for people to bury marine animals.
The Bones Are Centuries Old
The area where the animal was buried was obviously a grave, but researchers assumed it contained human remains. It was not a rough, hastily built grave. The person(s) who dug it made it symmetrical with a flat foundation.
After unearthing the tomb, archaeologists determined that inside were the skull bones and other pieces of a marine mammal that had been buried around the 14th century. They were stunned to discover it was a porpoise.
A "Totally Unexpected Discovery"
During day 11 of the excavation, Guernsey archaeologist Philip de Jersey filmed his reaction to the grave site. He posted the video on YouTube with the caption: "Just as we thought we were getting towards the end of the excavation, a totally unexpected discovery..."
De Jersey explains in the video how the porpoise grave was truly odd to find. He notes:
"It's very peculiar. I really don't know what to make of this yet. Why go to the trouble of burying a porpoise in what to all intents and purposes looks like a grave cut? It's not something I've ever encountered before. It's not something I can find any parallels or comparable examples at the moment. But it's a wonderful surprise, really, for the concluding few days of the dig. We thought we were down to the prehistoric and the flint, and now we have this definitely cut in in the medieval period with the remains of a porpoise. Who could have expected that?"
The Island Was Used By Monks
Scientists believe the island, Chapelle Dom Hue, was a sanctuary for monks. They settled there to segregate themselves and seek peace and quiet during medieval times. There is still some rubble from old buildings on the island. Those who wished to reach the island from Guernsey would have been able to travel on a causeway during low tide.
Porpoises Were A Food Source
During medieval times, people typically ate bread, stew made from oats and vegetables, pigs, mutton, and small fish. Porpoises were also occasionally killed for their meat. But it's strange that the porpoise's remains at Chapelle Dom Hue were buried instead of simply thrown back into the ocean. The water is just 33 feet from the burial site. In addition, the island is very small, and it's unclear why the monks would use its limited space as a cemetery for a marine animal.