Medieval skeleton bonanza under Edinburgh car park

Archaeologists excavating an Edinburgh parking lot destined to become the site of a rainwater catchment tank keep running into medieval skeletons. The first one discovered in March was a dramatic find: a knight with a richly carved sandstone slab marking his high rank and likely profession. This was just a month after the Richard III announcement, so there were much exclamation about how UK parking lots are apparently a rich vein of medieval warrior remains.

At least two other skeletons were found at the time, but they were overshadowed by the knight and his fancy accessories. Now archaeologists have announced that seven more complete skeletons and one partial have been found under the same parking lot. There are three adults, four infants and a solitary skull. Just beneath the knight’s burial is a skeleton which appears to be that of an adult female. Just to the right of the knight’s sandstone slab are the remains of an infant. Their proximity to the knight may indicate a close familial relationship.

This brings the total number burials under this car park to at least ten. All of the bones were found within the perimeter established by an ancient wall, perhaps the wall of a family crypt. Radiocarbon dating is still ongoing, but archaeologists have dated the carving style of the slab to the 13th century.

That’s in keeping with the history of the site. A monastery was built there in the 13th century. Blackfriars Monastery was founded in 1230 by King Alexander II of Scotland. Much like the Greyfriars monastery under that other parking lot in Leicester, it was destroyed by a mob during the Reformation (John Knox’s rather than Henry VIII’s, though) and the exact location was lost. When archaeologists began the excavation, they expected to find monastery remains somewhere in the area, and it seems they landed right on them.

It was the sandstone slab which marked the spot. Archaeologists first encountered the corner of it and then unearthed the full piece. Carved on its surface are a Calvary Cross — a Latin cross mounted on three steps representing the hill on which Jesus was crucified — and a broadsword. In heraldic terms, the three steps of the Calvary Cross symbolize the three Christian graces (faith, hope, charity) and its use is often linked to the bearer having erected a cross in Rome or taken up arms in a crusade.

The head of the cross is not your standard horizontal bar. The arm-ends appear to be fleurs-de-lis, which are not only lovely floral motifs representing purity but also have the barbed looked of fighting spears. The flowers are linked in the middle by a diamond shape and enclosed by a circle. Fleur-de-lis crosses became popular in the Middle Ages as replacements for the traditional Celtic Crosses which often had round halos embracing the crossing point.

This unusual cross and its companion sword strongly suggest the grave of a fighting man of high status. Osteological analysis has not been completed yet, but Ross Murray, project officer for contract firm Headland Archaeology, notes that the skeleton was that of a strong, healthy, well-built man about six feet tall, a particularly impressive height in the 13th century. His height, powerful build and good teeth were the product of a consistently good diet from an early age.

The location of the burial also underscores his social importance. Archaeologists are still unsure of the layout of the monastery, but it’s possible that he and the rest of the group were buried inside the walls of the building rather than in an outdoor graveyard. The closer the burial to the church, the wealthier and more influential the person. That slab was meant to be seen and it doesn’t look very weathered to me, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it were an indoor grave.

The remains of a later building have also been found on the site. Royal High School was built there in 1578. It was demolished in 1774 to make way for a larger facility, Old High School, which was built in 1777. Sir Walter Scott and James Pillans, inventor of the blackboard, went to school there. The excavation area is known as High School Yards because the parking lot was once part of Old High School’s yard.

All of the human remains will be fully excavated, examined by osteoarchaeologists and then reburied in a respectful manner. The architectural remains will be preserved in situ, I’m glad to report. According to Richard Lewis of the Edinburgh City Council, the remains of Blackfriars Monastery and Royal High School will be left on the site as artifacts of national significance which would be destroyed should they be removed.

The Old High School building was purchased by the University of Edinburgh in 1905 to house various disciplines. In 1995 it housed the Department of Archaeology which Ross Murray attended. He fondly recalls hanging out in the High School Yards area during breaks between classes, just a few steps away from where he would find a wealth of medieval remains.

The building is being renovated at the highest green standards and will become the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, dedicated to researching and inventing new, sustainable low carbon technologies. Hence the rainwater catchment system which will apparently still be installed but without interfering with the structural remains.

8 thoughts on “Medieval skeleton bonanza under Edinburgh car park

  1. “Dust to dust” is clearly just an expression. Your blog is full of ancient exhumations and while it’s fascinating to read about, it’s creepy on behalf of the buried. I’m for cremation, that’s for sure!

  2. I’m assuming that the stone to the side of his jaw is just fill, and wasn’t inserted into his mouth on burial. It doesn’t seem to fit with the other honourable burial rites, does it?

    1. There are multiple burials (probably monks) in Aberdeen where the Blackfriars priory was, where there are stones in the mouths. No consensus on why, but suggested reasons being to stop the devil / devils words getting in / out.
      So in this case, probably deliberate.

  3. No ‘combo-coffins’ this time ? – The carved sandstone slab with the carved sword looks really cool, even if there are seemingly no inscriptions. The carved calvary cross at the ‘locus calvariae’ = ‘golgatha’ = ‘here is a skull’.

    “Oure gold was changed into lede,
    Cryst, born into vyrgynyte,
    Succoure Scotland and remede,
    That stat is in perplexyte.”

  4. This is a Knight Templars stone and what you see is called a Baculus, a Baculus was a fighting weapon, cheap and very effective.
    I believe this lad was of very high standing and possibly a Prior and fighting Monk.
    I found the top part of a stone at Temple Village in 2006, it is now in Rosslyn Chapel for safety,in 2010 a complete stone was found under the boundary wall at Temple Church, Temple was known as Balantrodach and was the HQ of the Templars in Scotland.


  5. What does ‘Balantrodach/Baile nan Trodach’ exactly mean, and how far is from our monastery/parking lot ? – A ‘baculus’, if I understand it correctly, is a long stick. It has been used for instance by pilgrims, and it was also a universal weapon. Our knight could have been a (noble) pilgrim, a crusader or indeed a temple knight. Are there really no grave goods whatsoever ? ‘Monks’ usually don’t have a family, i.e. I’d reckon that they are under normal circumstances not buried together with their loved ones. He was in good shape as it seems.

  6. Balantrodach means ” Stead or place of the
    ( Warrior )if you go to our website you will see some of the material we have written. Yes the Baculus was definitely a weapon much like what ” Little John ” in the Robin Hood story used.
    There was a Cistercian Convent and Hospital about five hundred yards away in St. Mary’s Street, I think he was either a Knight posted there to protect them or he died there, as there was no burial ground he was buried in the Black Friers site instead.


  7. I was born in Blackfriars Street in 1934. As a child I always believed that the Street was built on the site of the Monastery. I know now that it wasn’t.
    I used to be terrified thinking that the buried bodies would reach out to me in the dark stairwell.
    When I found out the truth I was amazed by the size of the Monastery and the grounds it encompassed.
    I went to Nursery School at the far end of High School Yards.

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