Archive for April 26th, 2013

Medieval skeleton bonanza under Edinburgh car park

Friday, April 26th, 2013

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.

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