On October 29th, 2017 we learned about

Dolphin’s remains found buried in ruins of 14th century building

Humans have been burying our dead for tens of thousands of years. We’ve buried important cats, dogs and other terrestrial animals a bit less frequently. We’ve buried marine mammals like a dolphin… maybe once? It seems obvious why humans would not be preparing graves for dolphins on a regular basis, but archaeologists are scratching their heads as to why someone went to great trouble to do just that hundreds of years ago on an island in the English Channel. Why would a dolphin need to not only be buried on an island, but also in bedrock under a shrine?

The dolphin’s skeleton was discovered among the ruins of a tiny stone-walled building on an island called Chapelle Dom Hue, just 900 feet off the shore of Guernsey. Built on a rocky inlet only 49 feet across, the structure itself may have been a one- or two-room retreat or shrine. There’s not much left of the architecture, but the grave itself is in good shape because it was carved out of the bedrock below the building. Great care seems to have been taken in the undertaking, as the pit has notably squared walls and a flat base.

Deciphering the importance of the dolphin

While the effort and craftsmanship is easily appreciated, archaeologists are struggling to pin down the motivation behind the dolphin’s burial in the first place. No other examples of dolphins being buried in Christian graves have been found, although dolphins are present in Christian symbolism. Once thought to be fish, a dolphin was used as Christian symbol before the crucifix came to prominence. The Greek word for fish, ichthys, was used as an anagram for the phrase “Jesous Christos Theou Yios Soter,” or “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior.” This connection doesn’t really explain why monks in the 14th century would dig a grave for a dolphin though, which has archaeologists considering a very different explanation for the mammal’s burial.

As well-crafted as the burial bit was, the dolphin’s skeleton looked a bit disarticulated. This supports the possibility that this pit was not a ceremonial grave, but a storage device. While nobody was writing about giving dolphins a proper burial in the 14th century, they did mention eating dolphins as far back as the 13th century. With that in mind, researchers want to examine the bones and soil found at the site for signs that this dolphin had been butchered and was being preserved, possibly submerged in salt. If this proves true, it may also raise questions about the purpose and design of the ruined building. Instead of a private shrine sitting against the sea, it may have simply been a naturally cooled place to cure and store one’s dolphin jerky.

Source: Surprise Find: Dolphin Bones Unearthed in Medieval Island 'Grave' by Tom Metcalfe, Live Science

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