Buried secrets of medieval Leith uncovered

Forensic artist Hayley Fisher assesses skeleton SK639, an adult female. Picture: Scott Louden
Forensic artist Hayley Fisher assesses skeleton SK639, an adult female. Picture: Scott Louden
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BUried secrets of life in medieval Leith have been uncovered after the results of a five-year project to analyse bodies discovered during an archaeological dig were unveiled.

The project, conducted by the city council and Headland Archaeology, began when the remains of almost 400 men, women and children were discovered on the Constitution Street site – previously a section of the South Leith Parish Church’s graveyard – during preparation work for the trams in 2009.

Now forensic artists from the University of Dundee have been able to provide a glimpse of what the Leithers would have looked like 600 years ago by using special technology to rebuild their faces.

They used forensic modelling to determine the shape and depth of facial muscles and soft tissues and state-of-the-art computer programming to build up life-like facial representations to bones which have been dated between the 14th and 17th centuries.

One skeleton, of a woman aged between 25 and 35 who died anywhere between 1360 and 1435, was found to be 4ft 11in, 1.5 inches shorter than the average height for a medieval woman.

She was found in a mass grave along with two other women and a child, but it is still unclear if this was related to the plague or some other infectious disease.

A boy, aged between 13 and 17, was also found and estimated to have died between 1393 and 1445.

Evidence has led the team to believe he grew up in or around Leith, while carbon and nitrogen analysis has shown that he had a predominantly meat and dairy diet.

City archaeologist John Lawson said: “We have had a forensic pathology report done on all of the remains and that is allowing us to gain information about the population.

“So we can tell that the general trend is that there were no violent deaths and that they most probably died of infectious diseases rather than blunt force trauma.”

Mr Lawson explained how 90 per cent of the medieval population died before they were 45, which he said “highlights the advances of modern medicine”.

“This was before the invention of common drugs and antibiotics so people were dying of things like flu and smallpox,” he said.

“It allows us to look at some really interesting individual stories – for example, a small number of women would have died during childbirth as some of the burials have the remains of infants in or around the pelvic area, and, of course, the infant didn’t survive either so it brings the personal tragedy home.”

The experts reckon the majority were labourers, but some people were found buried in coffins, a sign of wealth.

Mr Lawson also revealed 20 per cent of the dietary intake was fish – which was considered a food for the poor as it was cheaper than red meat.

And although the team has only been able to analyse a small sample of the remains, Mr Lawson said questions remained unanswered, with more research in the offing.

Jim Tweedie, of Leith History Society, said the area at the time had a “transient population who were always coming and going” and that life was hard.

“It would have been a difficult life and it would have been hard for these folk because it was only a small hamlet,” he said.

“Edinburgh was a royal borough so it could trade with foreign countries, but Leith seamen could not.

“Burgess Street was the only part of Leith that they could trade – they had to leave every night and go back to Edinburgh or face losing their right to be part of Edinburgh.”

Local historian John Arthur also explained how the living conditions would have been “pretty grim”.

“It would not have been easy – you have got the problems of diseases and particularly the plague when thousands of people died,” he said.

“You’ve also got the problem of people’s ideas changing because they moved from being Roman Catholic to Presbyterian and then the change from the divine right of kings to more of a representation of a government.”

However, Mr Arthur also believes that the remains could have been those of French people who were based in Leith after it was besieged in 1560.

“The whole concept of the UK started here in Leith in 1560 when it was besieged so there’s a possibility that the remains were probably French,” he said.

“There were 300 French soldiers based here during the time of the siege and the town itself was taken over by the French army,” he added.

Richard Lewis, the city’s culture convener, said an insight into Leith’s past would prove valuable.

He said: “Edinburgh has an undeniably rich and interesting history, but work like this means the whole city can truly appreciate our heritage.”