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History Mystery! How did a walrus end up in an old London cemetery?

article-image1872 illustration of the Pacific Walrus (via NOAA)

It’s not uncommon to find a human skeleton resting beneath the streets of a place like London. After all, people have been being buried there since at least the Bronze Age. But what is curious indeed is to find the bones of a walrus nestled in a coffin alongside the fragments of eight human skeletons.

The massive marine mammal, a Pacific walrus to be exact, was discovered during an excavation of the former St. Pancras Church burial ground for the new Eurostar section of St. Pancras Station, LiveScience reported. Back in the 19th century, London was hit with a wave of gruesome and widely fatal epidemics, with smallpox, typhus, and cholera. In just the St. Pancras cemetery some 44,000 people were buried between 1822 and 1854. As you can imagine, things got grisly, and bones got jumbled together, and the orderly burial plots turned into a mass grave.

Speed forward to the 21st century and suddenly there’s one of London’s busiest train stations there. Before the construction project the site was excavated by a team headed by archaeologist Phil Emery in 2003. Now the findings have been reported  to the public in his book St. Pancras Burial Ground. As to the walrus, Emery told the Times:

“It’s a bit of a mystery. We did some research to see if we could find any record of a walrus being dealt with, for example, by the London Zoological Society, but we drew a blank. There was a reference to Prince Albert riding on the back of a giant tortoise, but unfortunately it wasn’t relevant to the bones we found.” 

article-imageThe found walrus bones (courtesy the Museum of London)

Alas, what a whimsical dead end! As a side note, there was a tortoise also found in the excavation, but likely not the one of Prince Albert’s slow motion joy ride. And what makes the walrus bones so strange is that they were mixed with the human bones in one coffin. One theory is that they were remains of medical dissection, as both the walrus and human bones show signs of examination, but it seems a terribly extravagant creature to wind up under the scalpel in the mid-19th century. It’s also speculated it may have been brought halfway around the world with the ivory trade, but then why bring the whole creature and not just the tusks?

The mystery is still out there to be solved, and for those who want to get on the case, the bones are available to researchers at the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre at the Museum of London.