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The porpoise remains. Source: Guernsey Archaeology

A Perplexing Case of Unexplained Porpoise Burial at Medieval Monk Refuge


A peculiar medieval grave full of porpoise bones has been discovered on a tiny island off the coast of Guernsey in the British Isles. Experts have failed so far to answer with certainty all the questions behind this mysterious animal tomb.

Porpoise Remains Found in a Burial

The carefully placed remains were found in a deep grave dug into rock and aligned east to west in keeping with Christian tradition. Researchers were shocked when they realized that the bones they had unearthed were not those of a medieval monk, as they initially believed, but of a porpoise. Apparently, the archaeologists on Guernsey were looking for traces of 14th century hermits on a 17 meter (55.77 ft.) long outcrop near Perelle called Chapelle Dom Hue off the west coast of Guernsey. “It's very peculiar, I don't know what to make of it,” archaeologist Philip de Jersey from Oxford University in the UK told The Guardian.

Guernsey cliffs view.

Guernsey cliffs view. (Steve Johnson/CC BY SA 2.0)

Guernsey’s Rich Christian History

During their migration to Brittany, Britons occupied the Lenur islands (the former name of the Channel Islands) including Lisia in Guernsey. Traveling from the Kingdom of Gwent, Saint Sampson, later the abbot of Dol in Brittany, is credited with the introduction of Christianity to Guernsey. A chapel dedicated to St Magloire stood in the Vale. St Magloire was a nephew of St Samson of Dol and was born about the year 535. The chapel in his name was mentioned in a bull of Pope Adrian IV as being in the patronage of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy; all traces of the chapel are gone. While the chapel would probably be of a much later date, St Magloire, the British missionary, may well have set up a center of Christian worship before 600 AD.

Interestingly, several historians have suggested that Benedictine monks would use the Chapelle dom Hue off the west coast of Guernsey as a retreat when life at a priory on the larger island of Lihou became too hectic. Traces have been found of a small single-roomed structure that may have been a chapel, but little other evidence of habitation has emerged except the grave. That’s why researchers hoped that it was a grave that would hold the human remains of a monk when they first spotted the carefully cut plot.

The Benedictine saints Bonifatius, Gregorius the Great, Adelbertus of Egmond and priest Jeroen van Noordwijk.

The Benedictine saints Bonifatius, Gregorius the Great, Adelbertus of Egmond and priest Jeroen van Noordwijk. (Public Domain)

Many Questions Arise from the Mysterious Animal Tomb

"Why go to the trouble of burying a porpoise in what looks like a grave?" Philip de Jersey wondered, not being able to understand the purpose of this peculiar animal grave. One of the main reasons the grave is so mysterious is that the porpoise was buried so carefully on a place that was inhabited mainly by monks seeking refuge.

States archaeologist Dr Phil De Jersey, right, and Mike Deane alongside the trench where the skeleton of a medieval porpoise was found, a complete mystery to the archaeologists. (Peter Frankland)

One possibility is that the porpoise was killed for food, since these mammals were eaten in medieval times. However, if that's the case, the remains should have been disposed of near the sea, almost ten meters (32.81 ft.) from the site they were found. “If they had eaten it or killed it for the blubber, why take the trouble to bury it? Some effort was made to create a neat hole,” Philip de Jersey said.

A more possible scenario according to de Jersey is that the animal was indeed killed for food and was carefully stored until it was needed, but the preserved remains were never used, "It may have been packed in salt and then for some reason they didn't come back to it," he told The Guardian.

The most intriguing theory, however, suggests that the animal had some kind of religious importance to the monks who lived on the island. As de Jersey told The Guardian, “The dolphin has a strong significance in Christianity but I've not come across anything like this before. It's the slightly wacky kind of thing that you might get in the Iron Age but not in medieval times."

Researchers have removed the porpoise remains from their resting place and they are due to be examined by a marine expert.

The Harbor Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) is one of six species of porpoise.

The Harbor Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) is one of six species of porpoise. (Erik Christensen/CC BY SA 3.0)

Top Image: The porpoise remains. Source: Guernsey Archaeology/YouTube Screenshot

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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