Since records began, no hurricane in the Atlantic had ever moved as far east as Storm Ophelia. Indeed, it battered the coasts of England and Ireland in October 2017. And in the wake of the terrible weather it brought, something amazing was spotted on the shores of the south-eastern tip of the Emerald Isle. Something, in fact, that may turn out to be as much as a millennium old.
The 2017 storm season in the Atlantic was an incredibly busy one. Ophelia was in fact the sixth significant hurricane to come off the ocean since the start of the year. It began around October 6, caused by the remnants of a cold front. And over the next two weeks it caused havoc almost everywhere that it made landfall.
Ophelia subsequently hit the Republic of Ireland on October 16. In the days prior to its arrival, the Irish government had upgraded its warning level to red, which indicated that the danger facing the country was severe. And it was right to do so. Even though Ophelia was declassified from a hurricane to a storm before landfall, it still brought with it the most powerful gales that Ireland had ever seen.
Winds of 119 miles per hour were recorded off the coast of County Cork at a place known as Fastnet Rock. Another area of County Cork, Roches Point, saw sustained wind speeds of 69 miles per hour. And once the storm had passed, Ireland took stock of the damage that had been done.
Estimates indicated that due to Ophelia, the country had lost around $1 billion. That was mainly due to the almost total shutdown of the economy while it passed. While the power of the storm was incredible, however, it was unlikely that the insurance pay-outs caused by Storm Darwin in 2014 would be surpassed. But there was another cost to Storm Ophelia as well.
Three people died as a direct result of Storm Ophelia – and all of them were in Ireland. Two were killed when trees fell on their cars. A third died while trying to clear fallen debris. And when the storm had finally dissipated, a resident of Kilnmore Quay, County Wexford, made a grisly discovery.
The discovery was made a few days after the storm had passed at the aptly named Forlorn Point, on the southeast coast of the country. While that part of Ireland had missed the worst of the storm, it was still hit by massive waves in the wake of Ophelia. And these unearthed something truly shocking.
Along a walkway close to the sea, ramblers spotted some skeletal remains. At first they were worried that Storm Ophelia had claimed another victim. Thankfully, though, that wasn’t the case. In fact, the storm had revealed a body that could well have been buried for a thousand years.
When local photographer Jim Campbell heard about the discovery, he headed to Forlorn Point to take some pics. The skeleton seemed particularly well preserved. It even still had some patches of skin intact, and its teeth were all in place. But Ophelia hadn’t taken another life, as some people had feared.
Campbell subsequently spoke to IFLScience about the incident. “My first reaction was ‘Oh no,’ thinking someone went missing,” he said. “But as the day progressed we realized that this was an ancient skeleton.” The discovery still came as a shock to the residents of Kilmore Quay, who had no idea that a burial ground was nearby.
Kilmore Quay is a small community, with just 417 residents. Its main economic activities involve commercial fishing, but it also offers leisure pursuits including water-sports and angling. And the discovery set some locals wondering if there could be sites of historical importance close to their homes.
The police were soon informed about the find, and they in turn contacted a pathologist and a forensic anthropologist. When these experts arrived at the site, it was clear to them that they weren’t looking at a recent death. In fact, it seemed likely that this was in fact an ancient burial site.
The Gardai, as the police are called in Ireland, had called on the services of the Irish state pathologist, Marie Cassidy. And after conducting an examination of the remains, Cassidy suggested that the body belonged to an Iron Age human. That would mean that the corpse could be around 1,600 years old, although further tests were needed before this could be confirmed.
Moreover, it turned out that this wasn’t the first such body discovered on that particular stretch of coast. Two years earlier another skeleton had been found at Ballyteigue Bay, which is close to Kilmore Quay. And if the two are linked, it could suggest that even more ancient corpses are waiting to be discovered in the area.
Without Storm Ophelia, there’s a good chance that the skeleton would have remained unearthed. It was only thanks to soil erosion caused by the immense waves that the body finally saw the light of day. And there’s another important question that needs to be answered: what’s going to happen to this shocking find in the future?
Well, after the initial inspection of the body, which confirmed that it wasn’t that of another person killed by the storm, a decision was made to bring it to Dublin, Ireland’s capital. There, more tests will be conducted on the remains. Hopefully this will lead to a better understanding of who the body belonged to, and how it came to be buried in its final resting place.
Once those tests have been fully analysed, archaeologists plan to take the remains to the National Museum of Ireland, which is also in Dublin. Until the investigation is complete, though, it’s uncertain whether the discovery will go on show as part of the museum’s collection.
And thanks to Storm Ophelia, there’s a chance that other archaeological digs could be set up at Forlorn Point and the surrounding region, according to local councilor Jim Moore. Speaking to the Irish Daily Mirror, he said, “It is very remote and it now throws up the question whether there are more burial grounds in the area.”
“We have to consider now whether there is a need for further archaeological examination,” Moore added. The local politician also confirmed that, as yet, archaeologists are unsure about the new discovery’s connection to other finds in the area. “At this point we do not know if there is any link between the two,” he admitted.
Whether or not the two are connected, the skeleton that Storm Ophelia revealed shows just how little we sometimes know about what’s going on beneath our feet. Hopefully, more research will now be conducted in the area around Forlorn Point. After all, extreme weather is hardly the most efficient way to find out about our distant past.