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Skeleton found on a Cornish footpath could be 18th century shipwrecked sailor

The remains of a human skeleton that were discovered on a footpath on the north Cornish coast may have belonged to a shipwrecked sailor.

Following a call from a member of the public, Cornwall Council’s Strategic Historic Environment team were recently alerted to the discovery of skeletal human remains near Trevone, overlooking Newtrain Bay, near Padstow.

As always in such cases, Devon and Cornwall Police and the coroner were notified. Detectives and forensic officers attended the scene and determined the remains were historic and therefore the area was not considered a crime scene.

A licence to excavate the remains was obtained from the Ministry of Justice and a bone specialist from Cornwall Archaeological Unit (CAU) carefully removed the bones, with support from the person who originally reported the remains, as well officers from Cornwall Council.

Richard Mikulski of CAU excavating the remains

It is not unusual to find such remains along the Cornish coast, particularly on the north coast following stormy weather and cliff falls. In this case the remains had been exposed from constant wear on the footpath.

Ann Reynolds, Senior Officer for the Rural Historic Environment at Cornwall Council, said: “The remains were located beside an area that is popular for memorial benches and floral tributes and were clearly visible within the coastal path. It was important to act swiftly, first to determine that they were archaeological in nature and then to carefully remove the remains, showing dignity to the deceased and to avoid any distress to visitors to the spot.”

It's thought the remains may have belonged to a shipwrecked sailor and could date back more than 200 years.

Ann added: “Initial investigation has shown that the remains were of an adult, cut off just above the knees, potentially by the construction of an adjacent hedge. Two bones have shown heavy wear patterns, suggesting an exceptionally well-developed upper body muscle mass. This may indicate a life of hard labour, pulling, pushing and lifting.

“Given the location of the remains on the cliff and near the notoriously dangerous approach to Padstow Harbour, it is possible that they are of a shipwrecked sailor, and if so, potentially date to before 1808, after which the Grylls Act decreed that drowned remains washed ashore should be buried in consecrated ground.”

Richard Mikulski of CAU excavating the remains

It's thought the remains are more than 200 years old

Councillor Martyn Alvey, portfolio holder for Environment and Climate Change at Cornwall Council, said: “I’d like to thank everyone who has been involved in this excavation and shown such care while carrying out their work. I hope that we can discover more about this individual before they are laid to rest once more.”

Further analysis of the remains will take place before an appropriate reburial.

The Grylls Act

The Grylls Act or the Burial of Drowned Persons Acts 1808 and 1886 is an act of Parliament that decrees that all bodies washed ashore from the sea should be buried in consecrated ground. Prior to the act, remains were buried unceremoniously on the nearest cliff to the spot the deceased came ashore. The bill was drafted by Thomas Grylls, a Cornish solicitor, following the wreck of the frigate HMS Anson off Loe Bar in 1807.

Press release issued on November 29, 2022

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