Skeleton of 18th century whale found in London

LONDON Thu Sep 9, 2010 7:39pm IST

Francis Grew, senior archaeology curator at the Museum of London, poses for a photo with the bones of a North Atlantic right whale which were found in the river Thames at Greenwich, at the Museum of London Docklands, September 9, 2010.  REUTERS/Andrew Winning

Francis Grew, senior archaeology curator at the Museum of London, poses for a photo with the bones of a North Atlantic right whale which were found in the river Thames at Greenwich, at the Museum of London Docklands, September 9, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Winning

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The skeleton of a huge whale, thought to have been butchered for its meat, bone and oils 300 years ago, has been discovered by archaeologists on the banks of London's River Thames.

The remains of the headless beast, the now rare North Atlantic Right whale, were found submerged in the thick foreshore mud at Greenwich, an historic maritime centre in the east of the city.

"This is probably the largest single `object' ever to have been found on an archaeological dig in London," said Francis Grew, a senior curator at the Museum of London.

"Whales occasionally swim into the Thames, and there are historical accounts of the enormous public excitement they engendered."

Historians believe the creature, estimated to have been 16 metres (52 feet) long, may have foundered in the river in the 17th to 18th centuries, or could have been caught by one of the many whaling ships that operated from close by.

The skeletal remains, which weigh half a tonne and are up to four metres wide have been perfectly preserved by the anaerobic nature of the sediment.

Experts say the whale's resting place is inconsistent with a natural beaching and that it was probably dragged tail-first up onto the river bank to be butchered.

Whale oil was used for domestic lighting, while whalebone (baleen) had multiple uses, including for the manufacture of fancy jewellery, combs, riding crops and even ladies' corsets. Most of the items would have been taken from the front of the carcass which has been hacked off.

A piece of missing bone from one of the massive vertebrae suggests the animal may have been harpooned, or that gaff-hooks were used to secure the carcass after slaughter.

It is on display until Sept. 14 at the Museum of London's Docklands exhibition site and will then be shipped to London's Natural History Museum for further study.

Tim Bradley, of Pre-Construct Archaeology, whose team first spotted the monster find, said recovering its remains was no easy task.

"When the archaeologist on site phoned me to say what he'd found I thought he was joking ... among other things it broke the suspension on our van."

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