When archaeologists uncovered a medieval grave on the island of Chapelle Dom Hue, off the west coast of Guernsey in the Channel Islands, they expected to find the remains of a long-departed human. Instead, they found a properly buried porpoise.
The grave, carefully cut into the rocky soil on a high point of the island overlooking the sea, was constructed with the same techniques used for human graves. It takes up valuable real estate on the small island. So what’s the explanation? At this point, researchers only have theories.
“It’s very peculiar, I don’t know what to make of it,” said States of Guernsey archaeologist Philip de Jersey. He says that in the 35 years he’s worked as an archaeologist, he’s never seen anything like it. “It’s a wonderful surprise.”
The researchers don’t believe it’s a garbage pit — if the animal had been eaten, scraps would have been thrown into the sea, just 33 feet away. It’s possible the animal could have been buried in an attempt to preserve the meat. The researchers intend to test the remains for salt, which would point towards that explanation. However, the grave-like pit is more elaborate than you would expect for such a purpose. “The lengths they would have gone through…” de Jersey said. “It would have taken a considerable effort.”
Medieval people included porpoises in their diet. Banquets of the time featured large sea animals like seals, porpoises and even whales. While peasant food of the day is widely believed to center around gruel, broths and cooked grains, people of all classes who lived close to the sea would include a wide range of sea life in their diet. As Christianity took hold in the region, strict church rules decreed that no meat should be eaten on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, or during Lent, making fish a very important ritualized part of the diet.
One theory the archeologists are considering is that the animal held religious significance to the people who buried it. For centuries, Chapelle Dom Hue has been used as a religious retreat or hermitage by monks, offering solitude and an escape from disease and the unpleasant, crowded conditions of the mainland. The dolphin is sometimes used as a symbol of Christianity. Porpoises are a member of the scientific order Cetacea, which includes dolphins, although the two animals are different species.
Early Christians believed the dolphin was a fish, and considered it “the king of fishes.” Fish are widely used in early Christian art and iconography, and in the early years of Christianity, various symbols featuring fish were used as key emblems of the religion until the symbol of the cross was adopted.
Today we understand that porpoises aren’t actually fish at all, but mammals. We also know that porpoises are highly intelligent animals that are capable of complex communications with each other — and with humans. Human have long documented various levels of interaction and curiosity between the species. Possibly the island residents developed a primitive rapport with this particular porpoise.
Scientists are developing a variety of technologies that can detect cetacean vocalizations and interpret them so that humans can better understand these aquatic mammals. When the Wild Dolphin Project observed dolphins mimicking human vocalizations and inviting humans to join their play activity, they developed a special keyboard called CHAT (Cetacean Hearing And Telemetry) that acts as an interactive two-way device for human-dolphin communication. Dolphin researcher Jack Kassewitz is using an iPad with custom apps to interact with a captive dolphin named Merlin.
Another mysterious porpoise find was discovered in 1958, when archeologists excavating the floor of St. Ninian’s church on the Shetland isle of St. Ninian discovered a cache of treasure that included jewelry, bowls and other precious objects from the ninth century, along with a porpoise’s jawbone. It is theorized that the cache been hurriedly buried before a Viking raid.
“The bowls were upside down and the brooches and other objects tangled together, showing it had been hurriedly carried and buried with the top down. In with the objects was the porpoise jawbone and this, the non-metallic object, is strong evidence of its ecclesiastical connection, although the brooches suggest a secular link,” wrote A.C. Odell, a University of Aberdeen professor involved with the dig. What separates these porpoise relics from myriad others that presumably became dinner remains a mystery.
Cetaceans still exist in the waters off Britain’s coast, although today they face a number of threats, including underwater noise pollution associated with military exercises, commercial fishing and even Brexit, which could dissolve EU-mandated environmental protections in Britain. Conservationists hope it won’t come to that, however. After all, by decree set in the 1300s, the British monarchy technically owns every swan, dolphin, porpoise, sturgeon and whale in the waters off Britain. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth, a known animal lover, will step in to protect them.