Murder mystery over remains of medieval woman 'dumped' in pit beneath site of Edinburgh tram line

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a medieval woman they believe may have been murdered and “dumped” in a pit more than 700 years ago - beneath the site of a new tram line to Edinburgh’s waterfront.

Painstaking detective work is to be carried out to try to resolve the riddle over remains which are thought to pre-date more than 350 other bodies recovered from a 14th-century graveyard hidden beneath the road surface.

Experts working on an extensive dig beside the 15th-century South Leith Parish Church on Constitution Street have been left baffled by the discovery of the remains of a woman found on her own in a “crouching position” in a stand-alone pit.

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They say a murder is a possible explanation for the unusual position she was found in compared to traditional burials.

The detective work will try to determine where the woman came from, what injuries she sustained and even what her face may have looked like.

The discovery was made at the very end of an extensive dig on Constitution Street, which began in November, but was halted by the coronavirus pandemic in March and was only able to resume in the summer.

John Lawson, the city council’s archaeologist, who has been overseeing the dig, said: "This discovery is really important because it was in a pit or ditch about 10 metres wide and four metres deep lying under the site of the original graveyard, which dates back to the early 14th century. We think it pre-dates the graveyard, so it could be from a lot earlier than that.

“But the really intriguing thing about it was the burial itself. It was an adult female who was buried on her side and it looks like she is crouching.

The woman's body was discovered during the final phase of an archaeological dig on Constitution Street in Leith.
The woman's body was discovered during the final phase of an archaeological dig on Constitution Street in Leith.

"You would normally expect someone who had a Christian burial to be buried on their back. But she is completely out of kilter with everything else we have found. It was totally unexpected to find someone like that.

"The big question that arises is why has she been dumped in a large pit or ditch, on her own, in an area completely unrelated to the 14th-century graveyard.

“It is only speculation at the moment, but we could be looking at someone who has been murdered.”

Mr Lawson said carbon dating and forensic and isotopic analysis would be carried out over the next year to try to unravel the mysteries of the crouching woman.

Rosa Fitt-Conway, from Guard Archaeology, and city council archaeologist at the site of the dig on Constitution Street in Leith where the remains of the woman were recently discovered.

He added: “We are going to throw all the science we can at her to try to understand who she is, where she comes from and why she was in there.

"The forensic report is going to be crucial in examining whether she may have been murdered or not, perhaps by suffering a blow to the head, or something else that might help us.

"We will also be hopefully be getting enough evidence to create a full facial reconstruction.

"We are only at the start of trying to understand what has happened to this poor woman, but the fact that she was in a crouched position make it look as if if she has been dumped in there.

Archaeologists have been left baffled by the recent discovery beneath the site of the new tram service which will run through Leith.

"She is definitely going to be the focus of the research we will be doing into the remains we’ve recovered.”

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