Our Archaeologist Successfully Publishes an Academic Article on Plague Burial Ground in Leith

In 2016, Wardell Armstrong undertook an archaeological excavation at St Mary’s (Leith) RC Primary School, Edinburgh for our client Morrison Construction. The excavation took place in advance of the construction of a new classroom in the school grounds. The archaeological excavation uncovered coffined and uncoffined human burials as well as plague pits. The post-excavation assessment, which stated that the site was of very high archaeological significance, recommended the need for full post-excavation analysis on the human remains and the material assemblage. Full post-excavation works, including radiocarbon dating, strontium isotope work, osteoarchaeological analysis, dendrochronological dating, coffin technology analysis and conservation of the artefacts, was undertaken in 2017 and 2018. The results of the full analysis have now been published with SAIR (Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports), a Gold Open Access, fully peer-reviewed online journal.

A total of 81 individuals were interred at the Leith Links site, including children and adults of all ages.  A total of 79 individuals were recovered by the excavation team, with two bodies left in situ because of their location. Artefacts including keys, coins, sewing kits and combs were recovered as well as beads and brooches. That the bodies were interred seemingly fully clothed and the corpses not rifled prior to burial strongly indicates a fear of the diseased corpse. The lack of infectious pathognomic skeletal lesions, the dating of the finds, the dendrochronological analysis of the coffin wood and technological data, along with the known historic land-use of the area, all indicate that the burial ground relates to the 1645 outbreak of plague in Leith. Dendrochronological analysis revealed a felling date of c 1640 for the coffin wood (which was imported into Leith from Scandinavia), while analysis of the coffins’ manufacture revealed hasty construction methods. The presence of everyday items on the bodies could have indicated a more sudden death outside the sick bed, possibly indicating the occurrence of septicaemic plague. Frequent occupation and nutrition-related skeletal and dental pathologies indicated lives characterised by poverty and toil, and of hard, heavy work. Strontium isotope analysis revealed that almost all individuals were local to Leith; several individuals had rosary or paternoster beads, indicating a likely Catholic affiliation, which would have been dangerous given that the pro-Presbyterian Covenant was signed in Leith in 1638. Almost all of the younger children (under 10 years of age) were interred in coffins, indicating differing views on the treatment of the body.

The story of the excavation of the plague victims was completed with their reinterment in a communal grave within Leith municipal cemetery (Rosebank) on the morning of 16 March 2018 (pictured). Within the recommittal service a silver baptismal bowl was used which had been gifted to South Leith parish by three burgesses of Leith in 1648, in thanksgiving for their having survived the plague three years previously. The service was led by Reverend Iain May and representatives attending the ceremony included Wardell Armstrong (Megan Stoakley, Richard Newman & Martin Farquharson), the City of Edinburgh Council (John Lawson) and Morrison Construction (Graeme Middleton) as well as staff and pupils from St Mary’s (Leith) RC Primary School.

Click here to read the full publication.

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