Unearthing city's vibrant past one tiny piece at a time

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THE air was thick with the stench of animals, the din of horses braying and traders raising the volume as they yelled to attract custom.

It was market day and everyone would be vying to get the best prices for their goods in the square surrounded by ale houses.

The rowdy scene would have been typical of market day in the Grassmarket in 18th-century Edinburgh.

As far back as the late 15th century, it is known that the Grassmarket was a thriving place, where corn and livestock were bought and sold several days a week. Yet little was known about what happened in the area before that time – until now.

A city firm of archaeologists has been working on the site alongside contractors excavating the Grassmarket as part of a 5.1 million revamp. Experts from Headland Archaeology, based in Jane Street, have been overseeing excavations since September, and it seems their patience has finally paid off.

Before Christmas, they discovered a horseshoe and a buckle in good condition, thought to be from the late medieval period.

But what has excited experts even more is the discovery, deeper down beneath the cobbles, of four pits containing a handful of burnt animal bones and cereal grains, which point to the existence of a pre-medieval and possibly prehistoric settlement in the area.

The High Street has long been known to have had residents in early times, but there was not thought to have been settlement in the vicinity of the Grassmarket until the 15th century.

Project manager Simon Stronach explains: "The horseshoe and buckle are interesting. It's quite rare to get a buckle in such good condition. However, we have also found evidence of settlement before that – charred wheat and barley, and bones.

"In most pits we'd expect to find medieval pottery. The fact that we are only finding bone and grain suggests it dates from earlier times. Potentially that's very exciting to see early settlement away from the High Street."

The discovery will not be confirmed until the burnt material undergoes radiocarbon dating, to tell its exact age.

The items are just the latest discovery by the firm, which has been operating from its Edinburgh base for more than a decade.

Other notable discoveries it has been involved in include a cannonball thought to have been used in the siege of Leith; an Iron Age chariot – later found to be the oldest in Britain – dug up in 2001 near the Newbridge roundabout; and a variety of artifacts from the Scottish Parliament site, including a 14th-century Spanish olive jar.

James McMeekin, project supervisor at the Grassmarket site, admits he had almost given up hope of finding anything there when he came upon the horseshoe in November. The little arc, which reflects the smaller size of horses' feet in medieval times, is badly corroded and will need to be x-rayed to enable further study.

But when this happens the team hope to be able to make out details which could indicate more precisely the period it is from.

"We were opening up narrow trenches while they put in new drains," says Mr McMeekin.

"I was cleaning off the cobbles to get a better view, in the hope of finding something, when I saw a lump sticking out of the soil – it was the horseshoe."

The plain buckle, made of copper alloy, was discovered about a month earlier.

Mr Stronach explains: "We got it with a metal detector. It has no decoration so it's highly unlikely it belonged to a high status person. But it was owned by someone who could afford decent clothing, maybe a tradesman or a burgher."

Headland Archaeology made the news at the end of last year when the firm successfully identified the remains of six medieval bishops buried more than 600 years ago.

The bishops, who died between 1200 and 1360, were found at Whithorn Priory in Galloway, between 1957 and 1967. Yet it took a study by Headland, funded by Historic Scotland, to uncover who they were, where they came from and even what they ate.

The director of Headland, Dr Chris Lowe, an archaeologist of 27 years' experience, was involved in the process, which took more than a year. He worked from documentary records and examined the skeletons – both complete and incomplete – matching skulls in boxes with original photos taken of the remains.

Radiocarbon dating, combined with research into historical records, helped to pinpoint the exact years when the bishops had died.

Back in 1999, the Headland experts were tasked with piecing together life in the Canongate, digging up the site of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.

Experts were able to gain a snapshot of what life was like from the 13th and 14th centuries after finding artifacts dumped by Canongate residents in rubbish tips.

Merchants settled in the Canongate from the time of David I in long houses, which ran through to Holyrood Road. These wealthy residents dined off the finest tableware, imported from Belgium, France and Holland.

The discovery of bone gaming dice led to the revelation that well-off people in those times were not averse to having a flutter.

Another important discovery came in 2004, when the archaeologists discovered an anchor, a ring, a bone toothbrush and a 16th-century cannonball, pictured below, while excavating a construction site in Giles Street. It could have been fired as the English forces, under the orders of Queen Elizabeth I, joined the Scots who refused to leave the fortress during the siege of Leith.

Just last year, excavations at St Patrick's Church on the Cowgate turned up a large ditch of pots, which was not unexpected. However, the ditch was unusual because it was waterlogged. Being permanently wet meant that it preserved rarer treasures, such as leather harnesses and some leather clothing, as well as a bone comb.

Of all the firm's many discoveries, which have been the most satisfying?

"The parliament was our biggest excavation, which saw a big expanse of the medieval town exposed," says Mr Stronach, "and the Grassmarket is good because it is surprising." So is Edinburgh a gem of a place for archaeologists to work? "In medieval towns you can put a spade in the ground and find a pot," says Mr Stronach.

"Wherever you dig in Edinburgh you get a variety of remains, and Leith is different again because of its maritime history."

He adds: "For me, yes, Edinburgh is the best possible place in which to be an archaeologist."


RADIOCARBON dating has emerged as one of the best ways for archaeologists to pinpoint the age of an artefact.

Developed by Willard Libby in the University of Chicago in 1949, it revolutionised the ability to discover the origin of organic materials such as bone, wood, leather or charcoal. It has been honed to such a high level of sophistication that it is nowadays possible to obtain dates that are accurate to within a matter of years from samples weighing just a few grams.

Radiocarbon dating works thanks to natural processes. While organisms are alive they gather carbon, but this action stops when they die. Most carbon atoms are very stable but a proportion are of the unstable radioactive carbon-14 type and these decay at a predictable rate – acting like a sort of atomic clock.

This means material can be dated by working out how much carbon-14 it still contains.