Eerie reconstructions show faces and diets of medieval men and women in Edinburgh graveyard

By Ben Miller | 24 July 2014

Forensic reconstructions have brought medieval men, women and children to life, found at a burial ground in Edinburgh five years ago

A reconstruction of a medieval woman's face in profile
© Courtesy City of Edinburgh Council
The age, sex, build and pathology of people who lived in Edinburgh around 500 years ago and the first evidence of a medieval hospital destroyed during the 16th century has been revealed by experts carrying out a complex reconstruction based on hundreds of bodies found buried under a former church site.

A reconstruction of a medieval man's face
© Courtesy City of Edinburgh Council
Forensic artists have interpreted examinations on the remains of almost 400 men, women and children from the South Leith Parish Church graveyard, which was excavated during preparation work for Edinburgh Trams in 2009. None of the graves were created after 1640, with the earliest dated to the 14th century and three-quarters of the burials being complete rather than fragmented.

The average height of the bodies – 5ft 1 for females, 5ft 5 for males – was noticeably shorter than the UK average at the time. The vast majority of them died before they reached their 30s, and a third were children, reflecting their susceptibility to disease and malnutrition.

Although two of the children were buried face down, the vast majority of the bodies were buried east-west on their backs. One burial, containing the remains of neonate bones across her pelvis and dated to between 1426 and 1516, appeared to be a woman who died in late pregnancy or as the result of child birth.

Dr Kate Britton, of Aberdeen University, said her Stronium and Oxygen Isotopic Analysis on an 18-body sample showed that 80 percent of the residents spent their childhoods in the Leith or Edinburgh area.

Three communal graves were largely made up of adult females and children or adolescents. In 1790, the Church Council declared they knew of no burials in the area – denying the existence of the smaller post-plague burial ground following a siege in 1649, when the grounds were part of Edinburgh’s defences.

“This is one of the largest and most important urban excavations of human remains undertaken in Edinburgh and Scotland in recent years,” said John Lawson, the City Archaeologist.

“The results have shed new light on the lives of the Medieval population in one of Scotland's largest and most important ports.

“It has allowed us to highlight the lives of the ordinary person in Leith, by putting a face to these individuals and showing how they lived and died.

“The forensic reconstructions have really helped to identify these remains as those of members of the public, rather than merely deeming them as archaeological remains, and how alike they are to modern-day inhabitants of Leith and Edinburgh.”


The people:

A reconstruction of a medieval man's face
© Courtesy City of Edinburgh Council
Adolescent male, aged 13-17
Died: 1393-1445

Strontium and Isotopic analysis indicates he grew up in or around Leith and Edinburgh.

Carbon and Nitrogen analysis indicates that he had a predominantly animal meat and dairy diet with some marine fish, similar to diets of those from medieval Yorkshire but less marine fish than other parts of Scotland such as Aberdeen and Orkney.  

The date of death suggests that he was buried within the graveyard associated with St Anthony’s Hospital, though he may have been one of the first burials associated with South Leith Parish Church if the early 1438 foundation date is to be believed.

A reconstruction of a medieval woman's face
© Courtesy City of Edinburgh Council
Adult female, aged 25-35
Died: 1360-1435

Her height, 4ft 11, is four centimetres shorter than the average height for a medieval woman in this graveyard population, which is on average 5ft 1 – in turn shorter than the UK average of 5ft 2.5.

She was buried in a communal grave comprising two other adult females and a child aged between seven and 12.

This date of death indicated that she was buried within the graveyard associated with St Anthony’s Hospital.

It is unclear if her death and those buried with her were related to the plague or some other infectious disease.  

A reconstruction of a medieval man's face
© Courtesy City of Edinburgh Council
Male, age 25-35
Died: Mid-16th to mid-17th century

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More from Culture24's Archaeology section:

19th century whale jawbone leaves Edinburgh Meadows as repair bid begins

Archaeologists find baths of "sociable" Romans and early evidence of Christianity

Festival of Archaeology 2014: Katie Marsden on medieval finds and a World War I medal
Latest comment: >Make a comment
What I find amazing is the familiarity of their faces, how we relate to one another as human beings. All the time and space in between then and now melts away and we see how we share our humanity together.
>See all comments
    Back to article
    Your comment:
    DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted at www.culture24.org.uk are the opinion of the comment writer, not Culture24. Culture24 reserves the right to withdraw or withhold from publication any comments that are deemed to be hearsay or potentially libellous, or make false or unsubstantiated allegations or are deemed to be spam or unrelated to the article at which they are posted.

    Events

    • 1 mile
    • 2 miles
    • 3 miles
    • 4 miles
    • 5 miles
    • 10 miles
    • 20 miles
    • 50 miles
    • Any time
    • Today
    • This week
    • This month
    • This year

    advertisement