A MAJOR archaeological dig is to go ahead on the site of the massive Old Town fire in a bid to find remains which, it is hoped, will date back as far as the 12th century.
City council archaeologist John Lawson and his team will spend several days hunting for artefacts in a trench to be dug just off the Cowgate.
The dig will be the biggest since the devastating 2002 blaze which destroyed a number of buildings on the Cowgate and South Bridge.
The archaeological team is to move on to the site at the end of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, during which the area is to become home to a huge temporary venue.
Over the next few months the fire site will be completely cleared by a developer. The work will include the removal of the remains of a number of 19th century buildings, kept on site when everything else was demolished. It is hoped clearance work will also solve a persistent fly-tipping problem.
Previous archaeological digs overseen by Mr Lawson have unearthed remains dating back as far as the 17th century.
He said he hoped the forthcoming dig would discover remains and artefacts dating back to the 15th century - or even earlier.
The area was heavily populated in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the great and the good lived in what were known as "the palaces of the Cowgate".
However, Mr Lawson said it was known that people had lived in the area - which had declined to become a notorious slum by the mid-1880s - from as far back as the 12th century.
He added: "This will be the biggest dig we've been able to do on the fire site so far and obviously the last before the work on the development starts. We're going to be doing a full archaeological evaluation of the area.
"It's difficult to predict what we may find, but we know there were a lot of buildings in this area in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the earliest records go all the way back to the 12th century."
In the wake of the fire, Mr Lawson's team spent nine months piecing together a "jigsaw puzzle" of photographs of the fire-hit buildings, drawings and accounts from historical archives in a bid to shed new light on the area. A more modest dig was also carried out in 2004.
Fragments of medieval pottery, bits of leather and wood, the remains of shoes and old kitchen barrels dating as far back as the 15th century have been found on various sites in the Cowgate area in recent years.
A spokesman for developer Whiteburn, which is planning to create a hotel, leisure, retail and residential development on the site, said the firm would be working closely with Mr Lawson to ensure any historical remains were properly safeguarded.
Clearance work is to start within the next few weeks while vacant offices in a neighbouring Chambers Street building, which is to be part of the development, will also be cleared of old furniture and other materials.
David Kilgour, project manager with Whiteburn, said: "The work will enable us to prepare the site so the temporary Edinburgh Festival Fringe venue can be established safely and will ensure the site is also in the best possible condition for visitors in August."
The site was previously home to shops, offices and pubs, as well as the Gilded Balloon comedy venue, the Bridge Jazz Bar, La Belle Angele nightclub, Leisureland amusement arcade and Edinburgh University's School of Informatics.