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Edinburgh Bronze Age bodies ‘part of burial sites’

Janitor Robert Murray shows the area where prehistoric bones were uncovered. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Janitor Robert Murray shows the area where prehistoric bones were uncovered. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

  • by GARETH ROSE
 

Two Bronze Age bodies discovered beneath an Edinburgh primary school could be part of a nationally significant network of burial plots, archaeologists said.

The discovery of the adult-sized figures, from about 4,000 years ago, has stunned local archeologists.

The dig was carried out as part of a routine survey ahead of the extension of Victoria Primary, in Newhaven.

Dr Alison Sheridan, principal curator of early prehistory at the National Museums of Scotland, said: “It’s wonderful and very exciting.

“It’s not unique – in Merrilees Close, in Yardheads, in the 19th century, they found a cist stone box grave with two skeletons who were crouched like this. They were from around 1600BC.”

It is thought that during the Bronze Age people were buried in a crouching position as they were believed to be resting before waking in the afterlife.

They were often buried with pots containing food and drink to sustain them for the journey to the next world.

Dr Sheridan believes that the discovery at Victoria Primary may be part of a wider burial plot and that a Bronze Age settlement probably existed near to where Edinburgh is now.

“What’s interesting is that, although Edinburgh is quite built up, you occasionally get these magic moments which provide a window to the past,” she said.

She added that a Bronze Age settlement was “probably not very far away at all”.

“This could have been part of a cemetery, but the rest could have been destroyed,” she said.

But even if it has gone, the two skeletons could still provide a treasure trove of information.

Dr Sheridan said: “If the skeletons are well preserved there is a fantastic amount you can find out.

“You can tell if they were male or female, old or young, what illness they suffered, what diet they had, whether they ate any fish.

“From the teeth enamel we will be able to find out if they came from the Edinburgh area or not.

“If we’re really lucky, DNA will tell us if the two individuals were related to each other.”

The bodies are believed to date back to 2000BC, give or take 300 years, and add a new layer of history to Newhaven’s already interesting past as a medieval port.

John Lawson, archaeology officer at Edinburgh City Council, said: “It was completely unexpected to find them in that location.

“They are lying on their sides, with the knees crouched up to the chest, which is very different to how bodies are buried today – it’s a definite style which is very indicative of a prehistoric burial.

“It’s too early to say how they died, though.

“These pits are likely to cast a lot of light on the area’s history. Newhaven was always regarded as an area of archaeological significance, primarily because of its late medieval foundations in the early 1500s.

“There was the shipbuilding – the famous Scottish naval ship Great Michael was built there – and then, obviously, you have the fishing port.

“It was therefore a complete surprise to find prehistoric remains in this location.”

The skeletons are also a fascinating discovery for the school and its pupils – even if it has delayed a return to normality.

Head teacher Laura Thomson said: “We came in one day expecting to see our playground put back to normal, but instead they said there had been a significant find there.

“When I told the children, they were really quite excited that this was happening on our doorstep – we’re hoping that there’s a good window of opportunity before they get started on construction to use this as a learning tool.”

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