Medieval porpoise grave in Guernsey puzzles archaeologists
Excavators on the islet of Chapelle Dom Hue, off the west coast of Guernsey, were looking for the remains of a Benedictine monastery, but have instead found something both unexpected and puzzling. A graveshaped feature, oriented north-east/south-west, was found about five metres away from structural remains. It contained the remains of a harbour porpoise.
Philip de Jersey, a States of Guernsey archaeologist, said: “The animal seems to have been butchered before being placed in a neat rectangular pit, cut down into the gneiss which forms the bedrock of the islet. The section shows very clearly that the ‘grave’ was cut down from the top of the medieval occupation layer, which from the pottery found on the site dates probably to the fourteenth century.”
Porpoise was a delicacy in the Middle Ages, and there are plenty of references to its consumption, including a couple in 13th-14th century documents relating specifically to Guernsey.
De Jersey continues: “The puzzle, however, is why go to the trouble of digging a ‘grave’ for this animal after it had been butchered? The most sensible way to dispose of the remains would seem to be to throw them back into the sea, a few metres away, where scavengers and the next tide would quickly take care of them.
Perhaps a monk hid the body of the porpoise because he was not supposed to have it, or that the body was placed in the hole in salt to preserve it. It may have been packed in salt and then for some reason they didn’t come back to it.”
Remains of the porpoise