Archaeologists: Dig in Old Town could see Edinburgh’s history being rewritten

One of the most significant medieval archaeological digs in recent years could rewrite the history of Edinburgh.

One of the most significant medieval archaeological digs in recent years could rewrite the history of Edinburgh.

A painstaking excavation is under way at the Cowgate’s India Buildings in the heart of the Old Town, the site of the forthcoming Virgin Hotel.

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Finds exciting experts already include the outline of an old street and a 200-year-old tailors – as well as clay pipes, a pin made of bone, and pottery fragments from 700 years back.

“It’s about putting the meat on the bones of history,” said city council archaeologist John Lawson.“This excavation has the potential to be one of the most significant carried out in recent years within Edinburgh’s Old Town, particularly as it’s hoped it will reveal evidence of its origins in the 10th to 12th centuries.

“Preliminary work on site has already produced significant evidence of 17th to 19th century buildings fronting onto the Cowgate and the lives of their inhabitants, including pottery imported from England and the Low Countries. I’m looking forward to finding out what else is waiting to be discovered under the site.”

Members of the public will be able to visit the site today and see archaeologists at work,and look at some of the discoveries fo far unearthed.

Richard Conolly, of CgMs Heritage, who are managing the work, said: “The site was occupied by tenements from the 17th century onwards and we know quite a lot about them from maps and documentary sources, but we know much less about the site’s earlier history.

“The Cowgate had been established by the 14th century, so we are expecting to find remains of medieval buildings and traces of industrial activity, like smithing.”

He added: “With any luck, we might catch a section of the town’s medieval defences.

“This is particularly important as the line of the defences at the west end of Cowgate is unknown, so this would really benefit our understanding of Edinburgh’s development”.The excavation is expected to last three months but is not expected hold up the development.

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“Archaeology is a fairly routine part of development in historic cities,” said Mr Conolly.“Given the location of the site, there was always going to be a requirement for a significant excavation and this has been factored into the construction programme from the start.

“By the time building work begins, the archaeology will have been fully excavated and recorded, and the post-excavation analysis will be getting under way.”

Archaeologists also hope the site might hold evidence of even earlier activity with remains rarely found after being lost to later development.

Councillor Donald Wilson, the council’s culture and communities convener, said: “The India Buildings at the top of Victoria Street are based right in the heart of the Old Town, providing great appeal for Virgin Hotels’ first venture outside the US, but also a rare chance for archaeologists to excavate underneath.

“Their discoveries could lead to new information about medieval Edinburgh and help our understanding of the city’s history.
 I’m sure local people will be intrigued to find out what is unearthed.”

A public open day at the site will be held today, from 11am-4pm.