IT COULD have been a plot twist from The Da Vinci Code when workers unearthed a pile of bones under heavy stone slabs.
No-one knew why the skeletons were there in the central aisle of the 15th-century Rosslyn Chapel, which according to legend is the last resting place of ancient knights and even older holy relics.
But archaeologists now believe the skeletons were placed there when the chapel was abandoned during the Reformation, in the 17th century, by local people who wanted to bury their relatives on consecrated ground. They lay under the stone for more than three centuries until the slabs were lifted two years ago.
The archaeological team has now released the first pictures of the skeletons in their resting place. Tests are still under way to accurately date the findings.
Colin Glynne-Percy, director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, said: “During excavation works to install a new heating system in the chapel, archaeologists found a number of bones just beneath the slabs. Below that, they came across a second skeleton that was fully intact.”
Lindsay Dunbar, from Loanhead-based AOC Archaeology Group, employed to monitor the present conservation project at Rosslyn, was one of those who discovered the bones while extending an old heating duct. “We believe that the first set of bones had been disturbed by workers putting in the original duct, some time around the beginning of the 20th century,” she said.
“The bones at the higher level have been removed and are being examined before being re-interred. A small sample has been taken from the second skeleton, which was recorded and left in situ.”
It is believed there were three burials, although experts can’t be sure because the bones have been scattered over a large area.
“Once we get a full human bone report then hopefully the specialist will be able to give us an exact number of individuals,” said Dunbar.
Rosslyn chapel, made famous by its inclusion in Dan Brown’s best-selling The Da Vinci Code, had been in operation for only about 150 years when, in 1592, its altar was burned and its statues smashed as “a house and monument of idolatrie”. The chapel was abandoned and left to rot for almost 300 years until, in 1862, it was rededicated by the Bishop of Edinburgh.
During their research into the chapel, the archaeologists uncovered anecdotal stories of locals using the chapel as an unofficial cemetery in the period when the church wasn’t in use.
“People were coming in, lifting up the slabs and putting bodies there,” said Dunbar. “We suspect the bones date from that period.”
Carbon dating and other tests being carried out on the bones should be completed next year.
“Hopefully, we should be able to determine a little bit of information such as age, sex and what era,” said Glynne-Percy.
“Beyond that we shall just have to wait and see what information they can extract.”
Rosslyn Chapel, in Midlothian, is awash with legend and mystery. As well as being linked to the Knights Templar, in 1998 anthropologist Dr Keith Laidler claimed that Christ’s head was buried under the Scottish chapel.
The suggestion was that the Knights Templar, members of a religious military order born out of the first crusade, dug up the head in Jerusalem and carried it through France to Scotland.
It has also been claimed that the church, built in 1446 by Sir William St Clair, was the hiding place of the Holy Grail. This was the subject of Dan Brown’s book, which was made into a film starring Tom Hanks in which the plot came to the conclusion that the Holy Grail was not an object but descendants stretching back to the relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene.
Another Rosslyn legend is that the chapel is the burial place of the St Clair Knights, which could provide a tantalising theory as to the identity of the skeletons.
The skeletons are the most spectacular of a number of discoveries made at Rosslyn since the conservation project began in 2009. They include more bone fragments in the chapel grounds, a stone buttress in the roof containing a hidden stone beehive used for producing honey and another roof slab with hearts carved on to its inward-facing edge.
The work at Rosslyn, to install the new heating system, is part of a £9 million conservation project that has already seen the refurbishment of the roof and renovation of many of the stained-glass windows and the organ.
Work is expected to be completed in 2013.
n The full story of the Rosslyn skeletons is in the January edition of Scottish Field.