Excavating the ruins of a medieval monastic retreat, several archaeologists found something quite...unique. They were on a small island called Chapelle Dom Hue, off the coast of the Channel island of Guernsey, they were digging around the medieval monastic retreat. Unsurprisingly, they came across a graveyard and began exploring the graves. One of the tombs held the remains of a creature decidedly not human.
The dig was being carried out by archaeologist Philip de Jersey, of Oxford University, and his team. You can actually see a video of the strange burial plot and porpoise bones here. Chapelle Dom Hue is a very small island, only 49 feet long. Researchers who have inspected the island believe that there was once a stone building that may have been used as a religious retreat or a shrine by Christian monks around the 14th century.
The grave itself was first believed to be a grave for a human, as it was deliberately made. It was cut into the hard bedrock of the island which would have taken considerable effort. However, when the excavation began and the bones were discovered they were found to be the skull and bones of a seal mammal - which has been called both a porpoise and a dolphin (we're not quite sure yet, it was originally a porpoise but is leaning towards a small species of dolphin now).
There appear to be various hints that the creature was not simply disposed of in a simple underground hole and it clearly wasn't an accidental place for it to end up. As mentioned above, the grave was purposefully dug into bedrock. Furthermore, the bones were aligned east-to-west as Christian tradition dictates. All of this lends credibility to the fact that this grave was purposefully intended as a solemn resting place. de Jersey also makes a compelling point, "That is what puzzles me. If they had eaten it or killed it for the blubber, why take the trouble to bury it?" They were just a few feet from the ocean, so why not throw it back in?
There are a few different theories about why exactly the creature was buried in a human tradition. One idea is that they were saving the meat and salt and packed it into the grave and simply either forgot or decided against using the meat. According to an article by LiveScience, there is some suggestion "that the animal may have been butchered before it was placed in the pit."
Another idea is the place dolphins hold in Christianity, particularly Christian art. Dolphins were once held in high regard in pagan and Greek myth, known as a positive omen for those at sea. Like many pre-Christian beliefs, dolphins also found their way into Christian symbolism. According to Aleteia, "For those who made a living by the sea dolphins became a symbol of Jesus Christ, a friend and deliverer to the “safer shores” of heaven." So, perhaps they were honoring it after it washed up on their shores, was used for meat, or interacted postively with someone on a ship.
But, the mystery remains. The dig is now over and the bones were brought back to radiocarbon date, test the soil, and verify what kind of animal it really is.
de Jersey' leaves the mystery on a positive, open note "We will get expert advice when we've got the bones cleaned up, and I hope someone will be able to say exactly what it is."
The above image is not of the islet, but of the nearby Guernsey landscape, taken by Magnus Manske. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license.