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200-year-old Skeleton of Shipwrecked Sailor Found on Cornish Coast

  • Cornwall’s coast has witnessed around 6000 shipwrecks in the last 800 years.
  • A Cornwall local found remains of a human skeleton on the North Cornish coast.
  • The remains were laid bare due to coastal erosion at a footpath on Trevon.
  • Experts believe the skeleton could be of a 200-year-old sailor that was shipwrecked

The Graveyard of Ships

On 30th November 2022, a Cornwall resident found the remains of a human skeleton on the North Cornish coast of England. The remains were discovered following coastal erosion at a footpath on Trevone, which overlooks Newtrain Bay near the tourist town of Padstow.

Newtrain Bay is locally known as Rocky Beach because of its large slab formations and series of rock pools. Apart from a few patches of sand, the beach is entirely covered with rocks. Unsurprisingly, the beach falls victim to frequent erosion.

Cornwall’s coast has witnessed an estimated 6000 shipwrecks in the last 800 years – more than any other coastline of the British Isles. Rightfully, the coast has earned the title of ‘The Graveyard of Ships’ because of its particularly hazardous nature.

Experts believe the discovered skeleton could be of a 200-year-old sailor who was lost to the ferocious waves of the Graveyard of Ships.

Photograph of a copy of an etching by W E Deey and Henry Trengrouse. Many a ship became victim to Cornwall’s coast,

Shipwrecked, the Cornish Investigation

The local police and forensic experts initially cordoned off the scene of the discovery. Then, the experts studied and confirmed that the bones, in fact, had a historical origin. Consequently, the police handed over the findings to Cornwall Council.

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An Osteologist (bone specialist) from the Cornwall Archaeological Unit carefully excavated the skeleton for further research. Ann Reynolds from the Council’s Rural Historic Environment team said, “The remains lay beside an area famous for memorial benches and floral tributes. They were visible within the coastal path.”

“It was important to act swiftly, first to determine that they were archaeological and then to remove the remains carefully. We must act fast to show dignity to the deceased and to avoid any distress to visitors to the spot.” Reynolds added.

Further investigation revealed that the remains belonged to an adult. The skeleton had been cut off just above the knees, possibly due to a nearby construction of an adjacent hedge.

Reynolds explained, “Two bones have shown heavy wear patterns, suggesting an exceptionally well-developed upper body muscle mass. This indicates a life of hard labour, pulling, pushing, and lifting.”

Shipwrecked sailor
The skeleton found on a coastal path in Cornwall is thought to be of a shipwrecked sailor from 200-years-ago. Photo Credit: Cornwall Archaeological Unit.

The experts hypothesize that the shipwrecked sailor must have died before 1808. Because after 1808, the Grylls Act decreed that any drowned remains that came ashore had to be buried in consecrated ground such as a graveyard or cemetery

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Councillor Martyn Alvey, the portfolio holder for environment and climate change at Cornwall Council, said, “I’d like to thank everyone who is involved in this excavation. They have shown such care while carrying out their work.”

Further investigation of the remains will take place before reburial.

Grylls Act 1808

The 1808 Grylls Act was written into law that all dead bodies retrieved from the sea or found washed up upon the shore should be buried in consecrated ground. Prior to the 1808 Grylls Act, the procedure and custom for drowned sailors was to be buried without a shroud or coffin. The bodies of the sailors were laid to rest in the most convenient place along the coastline, with just a simple wooden cross marking their grave.

Thomas Grylls, a Cornish solicitor, drafted the Act following the wreck of the Royal frigate HMS Anson off Loe Bar in 1807. The United Kingdom Parliament passed the Bill in 1808.

The Act demanded proper treatment for the drowned seamen who were washed ashore. The Act was amended in 1886 by the Parliament following the wreck of The Princess Alice. It now extends to “bodies found in or cast on shore from all tidal or navigable waters”.

The authorities have confirmed that the recently discovered skeleton will be buried soon after the forensic analysis ends.