Mystery remains discovered at Rosslyn laid to rest

Ian Gardner, director at the Rosslyn Chapel Trust. Picture: Greg Macvean
Ian Gardner, director at the Rosslyn Chapel Trust. Picture: Greg Macvean
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MYSTERY human remains discovered during maintenance work at the historic Rosslyn Chapel have been reburied in its grounds.

The remains of three skeletons were found inside the Midlothian church – which featured in Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code – when work to the heating system required floor slabs to be lifted.

Radiocarbon dating of two of the skeletons indicates they could have been buried in the mid-15th century, possibly around the same time the chapel was being constructed.

It is thought the two skeletons were male and that at least one of them had undertaken heavy or repeated physical activity, with well-developed bone surfaces at the sites of muscle insertions.

Bones that had previously been disturbed were also found in the chapel precinct, with these dated back to between the 15th and 17th centuries.

Again, these are thought to be the remains of an adult male.

The AOC Archaeology Group in Loanhead carried out the excavation and analysis of the bones for the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, with the bones then prepared for reburial in line with guidance from Historic Environment Scotland.

Lindsay Dunbar, fieldwork project manager at AOC Archaeology Group, said: “Opportunities to work at such a world-famous and iconic monument as Rosslyn Chapel come along rarely, so it was with great anticipation that AOC undertook the archaeological monitoring during the construction of the new visitor centre and works at the chapel.

“The discovery of both disturbed and in situ burials was especially exciting given the limited amount of excavation necessary within the chapel to complete the conservation works. AOC was allowed ample time to complete the full excavation of the burials and the good preservation of the human bone allowed full osteoarchaeological analysis to be completed. Whilst it is unlikely that the burials represent the clergy, it is clear that to occupy such a space within such a small chapel means that these burials are of people important to the chapel.”

The heads of the skeletons found inside the chapel were positioned to the west with the feet to the east, indicative of normal medieval Christian practice, whereby on the Day of Judgment, the dead could arise to face the rising sun. It was common for members of the clergy to have the opposite alignment with the head to the east, so that on the Day of Judgment they would arise to face their congregation.

Ian Gardner, director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, said: “The analysis provides valuable information about the age of the remains but, inevitably, questions remain unanswered about the identity of these men and their roles here.

“Today’s ceremony to reinter the remains was simple but a very fitting way to return them to Rosslyn Chapel.”

The chapel was founded in 1446 by Sir William St Clair and was unfinished when he died in 1484.