Medieval tannery found at Old Town student flats

The site of the discovery off Holyrood Road. Picture: contributed
The site of the discovery off Holyrood Road. Picture: contributed
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A MEDIEVAL tannery has been unearthed by archaeologists digging at the site of new student accommodation in the Old Town.

Balfour Beatty’s £65.7 million Holyrood project for Edinburgh University has been the site of extensive archaeological excavations since May 2013.

Finds include bronze pins and coins of different dates, pottery imported from Europe, clay pipes and animal bones, as well as environmental evidence that will allow people to picture what life in the Canongate was like over the last 800 years.

Soil samples from the site will be analysed to give a better understanding of the plants and fruits that would have formed a part of the medieval diet.

The excavations also revealed the tanning of animal hides was the main industrial process taking place on the site during the medieval period.

CFA Archaeology Ltd has been working closely with Balfour Beatty and Edinburgh City Council Archaeology Service to ensure important medieval remains on the site were recovered and recorded.

The area, just off Holyrood Road, occupies what were the medieval backlands – gardens and industrial areas to the rear of dwellings in the Canongate – and is part of the city’s World Heritage Site.

City council archaeology officer John Lawson said the dig has cast light on lost 
history. He said: “It was important to discover what this area had to tell us about the history of our city before allowing a new development to emerge on the site.

“We knew the site could help us understand how the Canongate developed from its origins in the 12th century to become the site of an important Victorian brewery, but we were surprised to find over four metres of preserved architectural remains and rare survivals of materials.”

He added: “The site has revealed the first evidence of an industrial-scale tanning industry in Edinburgh and also provides vital information on the topography of Edinburgh. The survey has also helped to pinpoint the location of the boundary ditch that existed between Edinburgh and the Canongate for over 200 years.”

The student accommodation project will deliver 1165 student bedrooms. The first phase of the development is scheduled for handover this summer, with project completion for the final phase scheduled for summer 2016.

Alastair Moore, Balfour Beatty senior project manager, said they were “delighted to have been involved in this process to understand more about how medieval Edinburgh went about its work and daily life”.

david.oleary@edinburghnews.com