Human bones found beneath Edinburgh house show city's anatomy past

By Ben Miller | 07 March 2014

Bones found buried in an Edinburgh garden could reflect the city's anatomical past

A photo of a section of bone against a red background
A close-up of the rewiring holes drilled in bones found in Edinburgh© GUARD Archaeology Ltd
Drilled and threaded with wires, the smoothed-out remains of five people – possibly exhumed by grave-robbers during the 19th century, and ending up in the hands of a family with medical and religious passions – have been discovered by archaeologists in the garden of a house in Edinburgh.

Radiocarbon dating suggests the bone fragments originate from the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Scottish capital was renowned for anatomical research and study, with criminals carrying out murder sprees before selling parts to anatomists for dissection. Other bodies were donated privately or acquired after being unclaimed through workhouses following the 1832 Anatomy Act.

A photo of two archaeologists carrying out an excavation on a muddy domestic garden
The excavation at 12 Grove Street© GUARD Archaeology Ltd
Morag Cross, a co-author on the work carried out by Guard Archaeology, believes the bones may have been owned by Dr David Thomson, who trained in Edinburgh and had a daughter involved with wire-working companies during her time at the house on Grove Street.

“The coincidence of wireworkers, medical practitioners and clergymen associated with the house and garden occurs in the late 1840s and in the late 1850s with the intermarried Peddie, Young and Thomson families,” she says.

“Some of the bones had once been attached by wires, probably for anatomical teaching purposes, and others had been much-handled, as if by medical students.

“The Youngs produced various grades of fine and woven wire products. Their sister edited a Christian family magazine, and their father was a retired minister, so respectful disposal may have been a conscious concern.

“They had multiple legal opportunities to deposit remains in open graves and within sanctioned burial grounds, while conducting contemporary funerals.

“The wire-holes in several bones were side-by-side, as if they had been drilled more than once, to renovate or re-articulate somewhat worn skeletal fragments.”

Cross mentions Mr Venus, from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, as a symbol of the specialist “articulators” – often doubling as taxidermists – working with remains during the period.

“Another scenario is that one of the wire companies wanted to enter the scientific market, and was examining the methods of joining bones together with wire,” she explains.

Founded in 1726, the medical school of Edinburgh University was attracting 200 students annually by 1780, doubling its influx by 1820. Private anatomy schools around an area known as Surgeons’ Square  provided hands-on experience for eager students at the time.

The full results of the research, which was funded by Historic Scotland, have been made freely available to the public online.

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