Coastal erosion should reveal more skeletons

Coastal erosion will yield more historic discoveries such as the remains of shipwrecked sailors, experts say.

It follows the discovery of a skeleton, thought to belong to a 17th or 18th century sailor, in Cornwall.

Numerous other sites in England have revealed human remains, buried close to where they were washed ashore.

“Increased storms and rising sea levels” mean it’s “more likely” to see more burials of this type exposed, said Devon County archaeologist Bill Horner.

The discovery of a skeleton in November at Trevone near Padstow in Cornwall is among several cases discovered in the county, including the remains of a suspected sailor who was shipwrecked at Sennen near Land’s End in 2013.

Other similar finds have been found at Treyarnon Bay in 1994, at Pentireglaze Haven in Hayle Bay in 2007, on the northern side of the famous Polzeath beach in 2011 and at Looe Island.

All the remains are thought to date from before the 19th century, and some sites have remains of clothing such as bone and pewter waistcoats and buttons.

In nearby Devon the remains of what are thought to have been shipwrecked sailors have been found at Croyde in 1996, Dartmouth in 1985, East Prawle in 2003 and Bigbury on Sea in 2018.

The remains of at least six suspected shipwreck victims were revealed by coastal erosion in Wales in 2019.

Archaeologist Horner told the BBC: ‘I would say, given what we’re seeing in terms of increased storm surges and sea level rise, it’s more likely we won’t see any further burials of this type exposed along our coastline.’

Human remains believed to be of a sailor were found on the northern side of the famous Polzeath beach in 2011

According to Historic England there are more than 37,000 known wreck sites along the English coast, of which nearly 60 are protected.

After 1808 the Grylls Act decreed that drowned remains washed ashore should be buried in consecrated ground.

Before the deed, the remains were buried unceremoniously on the cliff closest to where the deceased had landed.

Win Scutt, property curator at charity English Heritage, told the BBC: ‘You have just found a body on the beach that had been washed up in the tide.

“You didn’t know if they were Christian, so you couldn’t put them in a Christian cemetery, so they’re often buried on or near beaches.”

Anyone who discovers the remains must report them to the police, who will decide whether a criminal investigation is required before they can be handed over to archaeologists for analysis and burial.

Scutt said: ‘Skeletons have been appearing on our coastline for many years, but due to coastal erosion, due to climate change, we are actually seeing an increase in them.

“So where you have low-lying deposits where burials could easily take place in Devon, Dorset, Cornwall and all over the South West, where it’s a convenient place to bury someone at some point, those are now exposed.”

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