History rises from the ashes

THOUSANDS of everyday items from the 15th century homes of bishops, lords and ladies have been uncovered in a four-metre deep seam of archaeological remains discovered beneath the Cowgate.

Fragments of medieval pottery and leather and wood, thought to be the remains of shoes and kitchen barrels, are among the artifacts uncovered during a five-year excavation which has proved to be one of the most significant in the UK in decades. Experts say the discoveries on three sites in the Cowgate have put Edinburgh on a par with York and London in archaeological terms.

It will take up to three years for experts to analyse all the fragments that have been dug up. Most of the items uncovered are expected to go on show in Edinburgh museums.

The devastation caused by the Cowgate fire of December 2002 gave archaeologists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dig at perhaps the most significant of the three sites.

Archaeologist John Lawson said: "It was a disaster at the time.

But it gave us a fantastic opportunity to record some of the outstanding archaeology of Edinburgh. It also gave us a good picture of the physical development of the area since the 18th century, and a glimpse of what was there before."

Developments behind the Radisson Hotel, at the Cowgate Nursery, and the Scottish Law Courts gave them further opportunities to explore the Cowgate's history.

Archaeologists have discovered that today's Cowgate is built on four metres of historically-rich ruins, created over a thousand years, beneath which is a bog.

Mr Lawson said: "If you're standing in Cowgate today the ground surface is probably a building which was demolished in the 16th century. Houses have been built on the same plot over and over again. But instead of destroying buildings entirely, they've demolished to a certain level.

"Often when you're doing this sort of dig all you get is a line of stones or the tracks of a foundation. Here we have found a 15th century building almost complete in archaeological terms."

Since the 15th century, the Cowgate has gone from being the fashionable home of Edinburgh's richest gentry, to a poverty-stricken slum in which one seven-storey building might house 250, to its present-day form.

The murderers Burke and Hare claimed at least 12 of their 16 victims in the Cowgate, and human bones, as well as animal bones, are among the items dug up by the archaeologists.

The Edinburgh World Heritage Trust hailed the work as highly significant.

A Trust spokesman said: "This shows that despite developments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Old Town of Edinburgh has archaeology that puts it on a par with London or York.

"In places there are archaeological deposits of up to four metres in depth, including the ruins of 15th century houses, human remains and waterlogged features.

"These are particularly important as it means that wood, leather and perhaps even textiles will have survived."

Back to the top of the page