South Leith Parish Church archaeological dig: The most fascinating finds unearthed so far

Catalogue of rare finds discovered under proposed tram route

Tuesday, 8th September 2020, 4:24 pm
Updated Wednesday, 9th September 2020, 7:53 pm
The excavation of human remains which could date back as far as 1300 has began in Constitution Street during July, as part of the Trams to Newhaven project.
The excavation of human remains which could date back as far as 1300 has began in Constitution Street during July, as part of the Trams to Newhaven project.

Since the start of the summer, Leithers have been treated to a complimentary peek at the port’s medieval past, as archaeologists openly unearth fascinating antique finds from beneath Constitution Street.

With the Trams to Newhaven project now in the initial phase of construction, close to 100 human remains dating from as far back as the 14th century have been exhumed within the historic boundary of South Leith Parish Church on the future tram route.

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Prior to the construction of Constitution Street in 1790, the graveyard once extended a few hundred yards east of its modern boundary and hundreds of men, women and children of all ages were laid to rest below what is now a road.

Similar to a previous dig in 2008 that uncovered the remains of nearly 400 individuals, a fair proportion of the skulls found in the past few weeks are in such a well-preserved state that experts plan to take them away for forensic analysis and attempt digital facial reconstructions.

Hundreds more burial plots are thought to have been lost during the Victorian era when a sewer system was built.

But it’s not just the dozens of burial plots that are wearing down archaeologists’ trowels and brushes. A large number of ancient artefacts have emerged from the sacred ground too.

Rubble remains of the church’s original boundary wall, dating from 1483, can be seen along with evidence of a gravel pathway that formerly ran between the Kirkgate and Leith Links.

Archaeologists are on site outside South Leith Parish Church, where previous investigations have shown that in the medieval period the church's graveyard extended across the road with graves surviving beneath the current road surface.

Whale bones, providing a direct link with Leith’s whaling past, have emerged, as well as a very rare cannonball that was likely fired during the 1559-60 Siege of Leith. A second cannonball has also been discovered and is of a type common during the Cromwell occupation in the 1600s when Constitution Street and Leith were refortified.

Situated by one of the plots is a grave marker, the survival of which is considered exceptionally rare. Nearby is an unusual burial, with the head of the individual set to the east - a right usually associated with the clergy.

Much of the dig site itself is sandy-coloured, a remnant of Leith’s once sprawling sand dunes that furnished land far beyond the modern-day docks after the last ice age.

City Archaeologist John Lawson has been presenting a regular vlog on YouTube, detailing finds over the past eight weeks.

City Archaeologist John Lawson holds a 17th century coin of Dutch origin that has been unearthed at the dig site in Constitution Street.

One find that has attracted a lot of attention in the past week is an early 17th century coin of Dutch origin.

Speaking during the latest vlog, Mr Lawson said: “We’ve got two finds showing international connections - both from Holland and dating from the 17th century. One is a shard from a Dutch redware, possibly a skillet or cooking vessel. A common import in Leith and Scotland at that time.

“We have very few coins coming up in local excavations - people are very careful with coins, but what we have here is quite an interesting coin from northern Holland and dates to 1628. It adds that trading connection between Edinburgh and what is now the Netherlands.”

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