The whale’s tale: the puzzle of Cotehele's giant jawbones

A pair of jawbones flank the door in the Great Hall at Cotehele in Cornwall

For nearly 150 years, a whale’s jawbones have flanked the doorway in the great hall at Cotehele in Cornwall. For much of this time the bones have been shrouded in mystery, what type of whale was it? Where did they come from?

House & Collections Manager Rachel Hunt reveals how cutting edge DNA analysis and a chance discovery during a bit of housekeeping changed all of that.

Leviathan treasure

Cotehele, home of the Edgcumbe family for nearly 600 years, is an important Tudor House perched high above the River Tamar. It houses an impressive collection of tapestries, arms and armour and fine oak furniture.

Amidst these treasures, however, the object that generates the most interest from visitors is a pair of whale’s jawbones. They stand over two and half metres high and flank the centre doorway of the great hall.

Many questions and few answers

We know, from the absence of tooth-sockets, that the whale was a filter feeder, or baleen whale. Baleen refers to the strong, yet flexible material that hangs from the upper jaws of the whale and through which it sieves small organisms from the sea for nourishment.  

Also known as ‘whalebone’, baleen was prized as a raw material from antiquity onwards. Dispersed throughout our collections are many examples of objects that incorporate carved, reshaped and modified baleen for aesthetic or utilitarian purposes, including parasol spokes, crinoline petticoats and corset stays.

Examples of whalebone in our collections

Although baleen was commonly used in the production of objects, intact jawbones are unusual and this is the only example in our collections. Given their uniqueness, there must have been a clue somewhere that would help us discover the origin of these cetacean mandibles.

In 1647 the Edgcumbe family exchanged letters with the Admiralty concerning a whale that had been washed up at Mevagissey. Later, in the early 19th century, a number of observers recounted seeing ‘elephant’s tusks’ in the hall. Were these so-called tusks actually the jawbones in question? 

Scientific testing

Evidence to support any of these theories was, until recently, frustratingly elusive. During a visit to Cotehele in May of 2016, David Bullock, our Head of Nature Conservation, suggested that we collect DNA samples from the bones to submit for analysis. DNA testing subsequently revealed that the jawbones belonged to a fin or common rorqual whale (Balaenoptera physalus). These marine giants can grow to be over 80 feet long—almost twice the length of the hall itself. 

Video

Uncovering the whale bone mystery

Acting House & Collections Manager Nick Stokes discusses how the whale bones were identified using cutting edge DNA testing.

A chance discovery

Questions concerning the age of the bones, and the date they came to the hall, remained unresolved until a chance discovery while sorting through a large batch of archival paperwork inherited from a recently retired colleague. This turned out to be a partial inventory and description of Cotehele, probably written by William 4th Earl of Mount Edgcumbe in 1887. 

When did the jawbones arrive at Cotehele?

One of the pages contained a photograph of the bones in situ in the hall. Beneath the photograph a handwritten caption reads: ‘The jawbones on each side of the centre door are those of a whale (about 61 feet long) landed on Colona Beach, near Bodrugan, January 2nd 1875’. 

In the news

This discovery prompted us to search for contemporary evidence of the whale’s landing. We came across numerous mentions in local newspapers. In 1875, the Luton Times and Advertiser reported ‘A huge whale has been thrown up ashore at Mevagissey in Cornwall. The length is about sixty feet, and girth in proportion…The tail is considerably damaged, otherwise the monster is in excellent condition. The whale will probably be made into a skeleton, under the superintendence of London naturalists, but it is possible that it will be cut into bits and brought to London on trucks by the Great Western Railway.’

Illustration of a beached whale surrounded by onlookers, circa 1870
Illustration of a beached whale, c. 1870

Decades later, in 1945, a reader wrote to the Western Morning News recalling being ‘one of the thousands who visited the whale on Colona beach 72 years ago... Its entrails were protruding from its mouth and didn’t it smell! It was sold to a fish merchant for £60; the whale-bone was salvaged and the blubber rendered into oil and resold, no doubt at a profit’.

Thanks to these news reports, we can now say with great certainty that the huge whale washed upon Colona beach in 1875 was the original owner of Cotehele’s jawbones. While this aspect of the mystery is solved, the exact details of how the jawbones were acquired for Cotehele are still a matter for speculation.
 

" Have you seen the whale?
Have you seen the whale?
We never saw such sight before,
In going to see the whale.
All through the mud and mire my boys
We are going to see the whale. "
- Contemporary ballad commemorating the event

This text is adapted from an article originally published in the ABC Bulletin, Winter 2016-17.

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