Skeleton found under Scottish school playground may have been a pirate

An excavation at Edinburgh’s Victoria Primary School last year unearthed the skeletal remains of what may have been a 16th century pirate.

Founded in the 1840s, Victoria Primary School is the oldest working elementary school in Edinburgh and is housed in a historic building in the neighborhood of Newhaven which was once a thriving fishing village with a harbour on the Firth of Forth. In the early 1500s, King James IV, visions of a great Scottish navy dancing in his head, established a deep-water port with a dock for the construction of large warships in Newhaven. The first ship constructed at the Newhaven port was the Great Michael, the largest ship in the world when it launched in 1511 with twice the displacement of its exact contemporary and King Henry VIII’s pride and joy, the Mary Rose.

When the City of Edinburgh Council decided to build an addition to the primary school building, AOC Archaeology was contracted to do a thorough archaeological survey before construction. With the school near the present harbour and practically on top of the original one, archaeologists expected to find the remains of structures from the old harbour and the shipbuilding concerns that once proliferated there. Instead they found skeletal remains in very poor condition.

Because of its condition and because shards of 4,000-year-old Bronze Age pottery were unearthed alongside the skeleton, the archaeological team at first thought the remains were very ancient. Radiocarbon dating performed by AOC Archaeology revealed that in fact the remains date to the 16th century or 17th century. The date, location and condition of the remains suggest this man, who was about 50 years old at the time of death, did not die a peaceful death and go to a respectful repose.

At that time, there was a gibbet on the Newhaven dockyards where pirates and others convicted of capital crimes would be hung for weeks until their bodies rotted away. Pirates were particularly popular candidates for the Newhaven gibbet because hanging their decaying bodies in plain view of the ships in the harbour was meant to be a deterrent to any other would-be scurvy dogs. Whatever was left of the body would eventually be taken down and buried wherever. The Victoria Primary School skeleton was buried in a shallow grave close to the shore, not in one of three graveyards in the area.

Laura Thompson, Head Teacher at Victoria Primary School, added: “As the oldest working primary school in Edinburgh, we are proud of our history and heritage and the school even has a dedicated museum to the local area.

“The pupils think it’s fantastic that a skeleton was found deep underneath their playground. The archaeologists will hold a special lesson with some of the children about how they have used science to analyse the remains and it will be a good learning opportunity for them.”

Not to mention an outstanding opportunity for pirate-themed recess games.

Forensic artist Hayley Fisher has made a facial reconstruction of what the man may have looked like from the remains of the skull. He looks a little young for a 50-year-old pirate/criminal. Needs more weather beating.


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Comment by serial k
2016-01-04 13:24:04

Can DNA be extracted from skeletons like this and compare to modern DNA databases and match it with people in their lineage?

Comment by Cordate
2016-01-04 15:31:52

Typically any surviving human DNA in this sort of site will be extensively mixed in with bacterial DNA, making it prohibitively difficult (mostly time-consuming and expensive) to extract much in the way of coherent human genetic data.

New methods of purification of samples through RNA probes is making this sort of work more feasible however, so we’ll likely an increase in DNA extraction (for whatever species is of interest) from archaeological sites in the coming years.

Comment by Long John Silver
2016-01-05 07:29:31

Arr, a pirate grounded at primary playground :skull:
And fifteen kids on the dead man’s chest —

Comment by dearieme
2016-01-05 08:06:27

The headmistress knows where the bodies are buried.

Comment by GoryDetails
2016-01-05 10:52:19

And what a cute pirate, too! I agree that the reconstruction doesn’t seem sufficiently aged/weatherbeaten/scarred, but I suppose tarting it up with a scar and eye-patch (especially if the skull didn’t show evidence of any such injuries) would be too “Hollywood”.

I love that the school kids are so excited about this discovery. I know I would have been, too!

Comment by Alex
2016-01-17 19:01:40

Very interesting story! I agree that it is nice to see that kids are getting excited about history. I feel like kids are not excited about history anymore. You have to go to a museum to enjoy history and some museums are really boring and dull.

It would be cool to have a museum that the kids could actually touch the pieces and play with. To keep their attention and keep them excited about history.

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June 2022


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