Building a picture of the past

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TO the untrained eye, it’s just a lump of stone embedded in a rather unremarkable wall. Nothing dramatic, nothing outstanding, it appears to do no more than its intended job of helping to hold the other stones around it firmly in place.

But to the expert eyes of archaeologists John Lawson and Dave Connolly, it is utterly fascinating, another tiny piece of their enormous jigsaw puzzle.

Far from being just a lump of stone, this is suddenly revealed as a roll moulding dating from the 17th century. In its day it would have formed the top of a door inside the palatial home of an Edinburgh worthy, perhaps a well-heeled lord, an educated scholar or maybe a high ranking churchman.

Just beneath it rests another chunk of stone, this one gouged with three circular holes, each around one-inch deep. "There would have been iron grills coming out of those holes," explains Dave, mounting excitement in his voice. "That means we are looking at what at some point would have been a window grill. But here it’s been re-used to construct a fireplace in 1790 when South Bridge was built."

The two men are standing with their boots sinking ever deeper into the thick mud on what was, until recently, the site of the Living Room pub in the Cowgate. Surrounding them is rubble, demolition equipment, the charred scraps of Leisureland fliers declaring 15 free minutes of snooker for every 30 minutes played, and the demolition crews in hard hats who have been on the site dealing with the aftermath of the devastating December blaze.

Eight weeks have passed since firefighters battled for 24 long hours against those ferocious flames which despite their best efforts still ripped through the historic site, chewing up the modern decor of the busy Cowgate pubs, the Edinburgh University informatics department, assorted offices and, of course, Leisureland; gnawing away at the walls of ageing buildings until they either collapsed or were too fragile to be left standing.

Today, there remains a lingering "burnt" smell in the air, as John, the city council archaeologist in charge of the site, and Dave, from the specialist firm hired to carefully research it, pick their way across mounds of rubble and mud, expert eyes scanning every fragment in search of yet another clue.

Their job is to examine in painstaking detail what little seems to remain, to carefully piece together as full a picture as they can of this once sprawling mass of buildings, which gradually evolved from medieval burgage plots to become the city’s most fashionable quarter - home to the upper classes who lived in opulence and splendour - before falling into a grim shadow of its former self.

There will be agonising debates over when and how buildings may have been added or taken away, which cobbled closes and which elegant courtyards probably stood where, and perhaps even a conclusion as who may have lived in which house.

It’s no simple process, particularly as all around demolition crews are gently removing what cannot realistically be saved, everyone acutely aware that what does remain may well have suffered fatal damage, that walls and ceilings may not be as safe as they may at first look.

"We are trying to preserve some things, but some bits are completely unsafe and for health and safety reasons the work here changes on day-to-day basis," explains John.

He is standing just a few feet away from what was the Gilded Balloon bar. Dusty half-filled bottles of spirits still line the counter, a row of ice buckets, plastic jugs, glasses and a shattered glass-fronted fridge containing a supply of alcopops nearby. He won’t be tempted to venture any further - the ceiling above is propping up a mass of collapsed stone and right now no-one is quite sure just how safe it is.

Around the corner, on the other side of the bar, and now exposed to the elements, is a panel of rich blue bathroom tiles decorated with a brilliant gold pattern that glistens through the dust. There is an electric hand drier still attached to the jagged remains of the toilet wall, looking as if it could spring into life at any moment and blow away the thin layer of grey debris that covers it.

It’s a striking image but, of course, John and Dave’s real interest lies in what came long before the brash pubs and clubs took up residence.

"What we are trying to do is understand is the mechanics of how this area grew," explains John. "We want to record how these buildings were put up, what was their physical form, what they tell us about life here and how they ended up being developed from early post-medieval times right up to the Gilded Balloon."

He points to thick lines of stone just visible through the mud which stretch from the roadside and deep into the fire site. They are the line of medieval burgage plots, he explains, the original plots of land on which the rich folk of Edinburgh in the 16th century built their lavish Cowgate homes.

Half of the old burgage plots were gardens, extending to the south under what is now Chambers Street and filled with aromatic herbs and brightly coloured flowers to compliment their grand, turreted homes.

He indicates again, this time towards Blair Street where the line of a centuries-old close has been identified, demolished during yet another bout of redevelopment probably around the 19th century. "One close was half concealed within the Gilded Balloon," he adds. "We are picking our way through to see just what we might find."

Secrets are slowly being uncovered, such as the section of 18th century courtyard wall behind the Gilded Balloon which had been hidden from view by centuries of development. Although the stonework is believed to be original, it is too badly damaged to be preserved. It is yet another piece of the complicated jigsaw which, using old maps, digital technology, ancient records, crudely drawn plans and photographs taken in the immediate aftermath of the blaze, should eventually create a picture of how the Cowgate developed.

"The fire at the Cowgate was a terrible thing for the people of Edinburgh," admits Dave. "But it is opening a whole new chapter of history from the 15th to the 18th centuries. This is not just a pretty exercise, we are having to do this to help the owners find out what goes where but also to help with the demolition. We can say: ‘Be careful, that’s a 17th century wall’, or: ‘That’s part of the original Adam Square - don’t knock it down’.

"It’s not how archaeologists generally work - we are having to analyse things as we get them. It really is a case of: ‘Mind that arch!’.

"This is a World Heritage Site," he continues. "And we are trying to be as comprehensive as we can but of course there will be blanks because, sadly, bits fell down before anyone got near them."

Quite what the fire site will reveal is anyone’s guess; eventually the archaeologists will turn their attentions to what may lie beneath their feet - there has been talk of perhaps uncovering the remains of a network of old workshops, foundations of early houses and various artefacts of medieval life. The potential for a major discovery is great. "Everyone who was anyone lived in the Cowgate in the late 15th and early 16th century," says Dave. "It was very fashionable suburb for the great and the good - lords and ladies, bishops - they would live there in very grand houses. The so-called ‘palaces of the Cowgate’ were the houses of the great and the good.

"Then you get into the stories about the people who lived there, the image of Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell staggering drunk up Hastie’s Close, and Tam O’ the Cowgate, who broke off from having a glass of port with his friends when he saw boys from his former Royal High School being beaten by Edinburgh College boys. He went down, rallied his troops and they soundly beat the Edinburgh College lads - one of the masters was even killed. So, you see, there were drink-fuelled fights in the Cowgate even then."

After that there was the 1760s New Town-style Adams development some 30 years before the New Town proper, the construction of South Bridge in the 1790s and continuous development throughout the 1800s. By the early 20th century, the site was dominated by a sprawling upmarket department store, J & R Allan.

"The Cowgate has a massive history - it’s not just a dirty place where a few nightclubs were," says Dave. "It was a very fashionable place to be. But how did it get to that point? Now we can get more information about how this area developed, the organic processes and the stories that are attached to it. What does it mean to the man in the street? It matters in as much as here you have the history of this part of Edinburgh laid bare. I’m going to sound terribly pompous here," he laughs. "But archaeology gives the root to the tree - without the roots the tree falls down."

Behind him the claw of a demolition company’s digger rests in the mud - work to clear the site continues around the archaeologists. The Cowgate - of course minus a large chunk of its buildings - is due to reopen by Easter. But, it seems, the challenge to unravel the secrets of its past will take much longer.