Unusual burial discovered in Leith

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More than 350 skeletons were recovered during recent excavation in Leith. CREDIT: City of Edinburgh Council

A recent excavation along Constitution Street in Leith, in advance of an extension to the Edinburgh tram line to Newhaven, has uncovered hundreds of human remains from a late medieval cemetery and, underneath it, a mysterious standalone burial.

The cemetery was first discovered back in 2008, during the initial construction of this section of the tram line, which was subsequently cancelled later that year. It came as a complete surprise to archaeologists, as previously no burials had been recorded under Constitution Street since its construction in 1790. Although the street was built through church property, the Leith Kirk session regarded the land as out of use and not part of the graveyard associated with the nearby St Mary’s.

More than 380 burials were recovered at the time (see CA 242), with the earliest dating to the beginning of the 14th century and the latest to just before the cemetery closed in 1650. A full report on the project was published in 2019 (Franklin et al., Past Lives of Leith: archaeological work for Edinburgh Trams, City of Edinburgh Council) – watch out for more detailed coverage of the finds in a future issue of CA.

Then, two years ago, the City of Edinburgh Council finally got the go-ahead to complete the Newhaven tram extension. New excavations along Constitution Street were carried out by GUARD Archaeology and contracted by Morrison Utility Service on behalf of the Edinburgh City Council. Work on the graveyard section began in January 2020, but was paused in March due to COVID-19 restrictions. Digging resumed in June and finished this past November. This time, another section of the cemetery was excavated and an additional 359 skeletons uncovered.

This brings the total to more than 750 burials now recovered from one cemetery, making it the largest skeletal assemblage in Edinburgh and one of the largest in all of Scotland from this time period. With the excavation now complete, post-excavation analysis of these remains will begin, and it is hoped that this phase of the project will be able to reveal interesting details about the people who lived in this medieval port town, adding to what was already discovered during the post-excavation analysis of the other skeletons from the cemetery.

Underneath the medieval cemetery was a stand-alone crouched burial – when and why this woman was buried here remains a mystery. City of Edinburgh Council

The biggest surprise, however, came towards the end of the project when an unusual feature was revealed: a large ditch or possible pit, about 10m across and 3-4m deep, with a single inhumation in the middle of it. Found approximately 1m into the feature, the burial does not appear to have been cut into it, but rather placed there, either while the feature was silting up or being back-filled. Based on morphological characteristics the remains appear to be of a woman, and she was buried in a crouched position, facing south-west to north-east, instead of in the traditional Christian supine position, oriented west to east.

The feature was completely sealed by the cemetery above it, suggesting that it at least pre-dates the 14th century, when the cemetery first came into use. It also does not appear to be in alignment with any other medieval features nearby, including the burgage plots, running at roughly 45° to them. As no significant small finds were recovered from this feature, however, the date of the burial remains a mystery. It is hoped, though, that post-excavation analysis, including radiocarbon dating and isotopic analysis, will answer the question of when – and possibly why – this woman came to be buried here.

This news article appears in issue 372 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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