Human skull found by shocked volunteers during UK beach clean

Experts say the find is ‘unusual’ after similar remains were found on a beach just over 50 miles away a few months ago.

A human skull has been found during a beach clean in Cornwall. Emily Stevenson, co-founder of Beach Guardian, came across the remains on a dune cliff at Sennen Cove earlier this month.

Further investigation by Devon and Cornwall Police, with the assistance of Cornwall Council’s Strategic Historic Environment Team, determined the remains were “historic in nature”, similar to an 18th Century skeleton discovered at Newtrain Bay in Trevone in November 2022.

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Ann Reynolds, senior officer for the Rural Historic Environment at Cornwall Council, said that while historic burials tend to emerge every couple of years or so, “to have two sets of remains appear over two months is more unusual”. She added: “It serves as a reflection of the continually changing coastline and the potential for more archaeological remains to be revealed, particularly at this time of year.

“It is clear that they have been there for some time and it is possible that they may be another shipwreck victim, lost many centuries ago and buried by the local population. The remains are better preserved than those found in November, as they are encased in sand, and following excavation we hope to be able to carry out some analysis of the age of the bones and find out a little bit about the person such as their place of origin.”

Emily Stevenson said: “After spending over half my life beach cleaning in Cornwall, I thought I’d seen my fair share of interesting beach finds. Most know about the old crisp packets, the ‘Lego Lost at Sea’ and the Mermaid’s Purses, but this find really is in a league of its own.

“There have been times before, when I’m exploring hidden coves or deep, dark caves filled with plastic, that I have worried about finding human remains, but it really wasn’t expected on a popular beach like this. The beach clean we hosted that day was just like any other, and off I went as usual to scour the sand dunes for plastic.

“The dunes are a great place to discover vintage litter, as the sand can perfectly preserve it for decades - only now do I really know that it isn’t plastic that is preserved here.”

Ms Stevenson added that while she hoped the find would inspire more people to start beach cleaning and learning about the history of the coastline, it was also a “stark reminder” of the fragility of the coast against battering storms “that are only going to increase in frequency and severity due to climate change”.

A human skull has been found during a beach clean on the Cornish coast. Photo: Cornwall Council.

“The degradation of the dunes not only releases plastics, but also carbon that has been stored here - and of course, anything else that has been retained here,” she went on. “Of course the other tragedy is the story of whoever’s remains these are, but we hope that this discovery can finally bring their story to a peaceful and positive end by inspiring the next generation to care for our coastline. We are so grateful to the police and Strategic Historic Environment team for their fast and helpful response to this."

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Councillor Martyn Alvey, portfolio holder for Environment and Climate Change at Cornwall Council, said: “This is another really interesting find from the Cornish coast. I look forward to seeing if the excavation and further tests can help us find out more about this individual and how they came about their final resting place.”

When any human remains are discovered, they should not be touched or moved and should be reported immediately to the police. Any other historical features revealed along the coastline after storms, including wrecks, should be reported to the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Historic Environment Record. 

The team will make a note of the discoveries and advise on recording and management of the remains. Cornwall Council’s Historic Environment Mapping page shows whether a feature has already been recorded.