Bronze Age skeleton removed from school playground

Janitor , Robert Murray at Victoria Primary. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Janitor , Robert Murray at Victoria Primary. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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THE SKELETON of a small Bronze Age man with worn-away teeth was today removed from his grave a metre beneath a primary school playground.

The 4000-year-old remains were found by archaeologists surveying Victoria Primary School in Newhaven, Edinburgh, ahead of a proposed school extension.

The archaeologists stumbled upon the well-preserved bones in late January while looking for evidence of the village’s medieval harbour.

The body was curled up in a foetal position common in the Bronze Age, and positioned alongside a pottery food or drink vessel to sustain them in the journey to the next world.

Archaeologists who excavated the site today initially thought there were two skeletons, but the remains belonged to one person, thought to be a male around 5ft-5ft6in and aged in his fifties.

His worn teeth show he had a high grain diet of stone-ground bread.

Further analysis will now be undertaken in a bid to discover more about his life, and death.

John Lawson, Edinburgh City Council’s archaeology officer, said: “It was completely unexpected as we were looking for evidence from the 15th century associated with the harbour and ship-building.

“What we found was the remains of an adult dating from around 2000BC.

“It is a remarkable discovery as we know very little about prehistoric burials in Edinburgh.

“This was a small individual, possibly a male, who would have stood 5ft-to-5ft6in tall.

“The body was buried in a crouching position, in the sand dunes on what was a beach 4000 years ago.

“We have also brought up prehistoric pottery, possibly a food vessel which may have been filled with a food offering.”

Victoria Primary, Edinburgh’s longest-running primary school, was built in 1845 and later extended.

The area around the burial site was disturbed by the creation of an extension in the 1920s, and at some point the human remains have been severed.

Mr Lawson added: “We have removed the bones - the skull and bones from the upper body and arms, the pelvis and leg bones.

“Some of the middle is missing after being disturbed, possibly in the medieval period.

“They will go for further research, and ultimately will become part of the City of Edinburgh Council’s archaeological collection.”

Mr Lawson said discovery of the bones, and the excavation today was a “once in a generation opportunity” for children to gain hands-on experience of an archaeological dig.

A hole next to the burial was found to be a medieval rubbish pit filled with oyster shells and left over animal bones.

Project manager Rob Engl, of Edinburgh-based AOC Archaeology, said: “You don’t get many crouched inhumations in school yards so this was very unexpected.

“Being so close to the sea we were looking for the harbour, but this shows people were living here in prehistoric times.

“It looks like a man.

“What we can say is he had very worn teeth.

“He probably had a high grain diet and ate a lot of bread - but the bread was stone ground and would have had course bits of mineral and stone in the flour. A lifetime spent eating that will wear your teeth down.

“From the wear we think he was middle-aged, but he was small and wouldn’t have stood out.

“We don’t know how he died. The bones are in good preservation but further analysis might show legions, blunt-force trauma, cut marks or crush marks that might give us an indication.

“He might have been done away with.”

A quarter of the school playground was cordoned off to allow the excavation - in front of a crowd of enthusiastic teachers and pupils.

Victoria Primary Head teacher Laura Thomson said the children had been inspired by the work and had taken part in workshops arranged by the archaeologists.

She said: “The Curriculum for Excellence is about learning in a real context and you can’t get any more real than this. The children have been absolutely fascinated.

“One or two were concerned there were dead bodies in the playground but once they found out they were ancient they were filled with curiosity. They’ve been watching from the windows.”