Book reveals faces of bodies found during Leith tramline excavations

Facial reconstructions of Scots from as far back as the 14th century have been revealed – a decade after their remains were discovered during work on Edinburgh’s tram project.

One facial reconstruction.

Nearly 400 bodies covering a period of more than 350 years were found beneath a main road next to a historic churchyard in Leith during a six-month dig in 2009.

Painstaking detective work carried out over the past decade has pieced together how people were buried, what illnesses they had endured and the way they lived their lives.

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Archaeologists and forensic scientists have created personal profiles and images for dozens of those discovered beneath Constitution Street.

The investigative board created for 'Past lives of Leith' exhibition. Picture: contributed

The 378 people whose remains were exhumed are being honoured in a new book and exhibition at the Museum of Edinburgh, which also reveals fresh evidence of defences built to protect Leith in the 16th and 17th centuries, before Constitution Street was built in the 1790s.

Exploratory work on part of the tram route uncovered evidence that bodies had been buried outwith the modern-day boundary of South Leith Parish Church’s graveyard – contrary to its own records. The research into the biggest ever excavation of a medieval cemetery in Edinburgh has revealed that Leith has been a site of worship for more than a century more than believed.

The burials were found to date back to the early 14th century when Leith was on its way to becoming Scotland’s main trading port, with fish, wool, timber, wine and spices being imported and exported.

Among the curious aspects to the burials were the presence of 50 per cent more women then men, and that only three of the individuals examined were found to be over 45. Some people were said to be from Arbroath, the Cairngorms and England.

An overhead image of the 2009 archaeological dig in Leith, Picture: Contributed

The way they were buried has prompted suggestions people may have died a “bad death” during a siege, or the graveyard may have been created well before the church – which dates back to 1483 – in the wake of a devastating plague.

The research states: “Forensic evidence makes it obvious these people led hard lives. Malnutrition was significantly more common here than the late-medieval average.

“The average male and female statures were below the British average for this period, particularly for women. While this may be genetic, it’s more likely poor diet and illness prevented these people from reaching their full potential height.”

John Lawson, the city council’s archaeologist, has worked on the project with archaeology consultancy Headland and forensic experts at Dundee University.

'A man who lived through interesting times'. Picture: contributed

He said: “The discoveries of these burials in this location, although always a possibility, was nevertheless a surprise.

“This exhibition and the book are a conclusion to a fascinating project which has truly changed what we thought we knew about the history of Constitution Street and the inhabitants of Leith.

“It has allowed us to highlight the lives of the ordinary person, by putting a face to these individuals and showing how they lived and died.

“The forensic reconstructions have really helped to identify these remains as those of members of the public, rather than merely deeming them as archaeological remains.”

Donald Wilson, the council’s culture convener, said: “Spanning ten years of painstaking archaeological fieldwork and scientific analysis, this exhibition and book explain how the trams project has altered our understanding of Leith’s history and its inhabitants.

“We can now get not only an idea of how these medieval residents might have looked, we’re also able to determine how old they were, if they were local and even how they died.”

Julie Franklin, finds and archiving manager at Headland, said: “Leith has persevered through sieges, famines, economic hardships and endless plagues. Weaving the sometimes harrowing, sometimes surprising story of the town and those who lived and died in it from the many strands of evidence has been a fascinating process.”

Dr Christopher Rynn, from Dundee University’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, said: “Using forensic techniques of facial approximation and reconstruction, in combination with archaeological evidence and artefacts, individuals can be depicted in a way that provides a human, interpersonal element.”