Expert reconstruction of medieval Leith residents

24 July 2014
imports_CESC_0-aarrt2bx-100000_32359.jpg Expert reconstruction of medieval Leith residents
Archaeology experts have unveiled the results of a five-year project to create facial reconstructions of medieval Leith residents. ...

A five-year project to analyse bodies discovered during an archaeological dig by the City of Edinburgh Council and Headland Archaeology has shed new light on Leithers of the past. Forensic artists have now unveiled what medieval residents of the former burgh of Leith might have looked like some 500 years ago.

A team of experts from the University of Dundee carried out a painstaking process to reconstruct the faces of the 14th to 17th century remains, discovered near Constitution Street. The bodies of almost 400 men, women and children dating as far back as the 14th century were found on the site of a previously unknown section of the South Leith Parish Church's graveyard during preparation work for Edinburgh Trams in 2009.

Identified as a particularly sensitive archaeological zone, the Constitution Street location was considered important due to its proximity to the early medieval core of Leith and the later 16th and 17th century town defences.

The subsequent unearthing of graveyard burials are thought to be amongst some of the most significant medieval finds in Scottish history.

They could provide the first archaeological evidence for the Medieval Hospital of St Anthony’s, destroyed in the 16th century.

Detailed analysis by the City of Edinburgh Council’s Archaeology Service and Headland Archaeology, in partnership with the University of Aberdeen, has revealed the age, sex, build and pathology of the individuals.

Artists from the University of Dundee have also been able to provide a glimpse of the faces of Leithers past using hi-tech reconstruction techniques, revealing strikingly modern-looking results.


By using forensic modelling to determine the shape and depth of facial muscles and soft tissues, isotopic analysis to ascertain individuals’ origins and state-of-the-art computer programming, researchers were able to build up lifelike facial representations for the 400 to 600-year-old remains.

Amongst the reconstructions was that of a boy, aged between 13 and 17, who was thought to have lived around Leith and Edinburgh and to have died in the late 14th or early 15th century, an adult male aged 25 to 35 who lived in the mid 16th to 17th century and a woman also aged between 25 and 35, who died in the late 14th and early 15th century.

John Lawson, City Archaeologist, said: 'This is one of the largest and most important urban excavations of human remains undertaken in Edinburgh and Scotland in recent years. The results have shed new light on the lives of the medieval population in one of Scotland's largest and most important ports.  

'It has allowed us to highlight the lives of the ordinary person in Leith, 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, and how alike they are to modern day inhabitants of Leith and Edinburgh.

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'Additionally, the project has allowed us to develop important partnerships with the Universities of Dundee and Aberdeen, which is already leading on to possible further areas of collaborative research into the former inhabitants of Edinburgh.'


(Top image)
Adolescent male, aged 13-17, Died: 1393-1445
Strontium and Isotopic analysis indicates he grew up in or around Leith and Edinburgh. Carbon and Nitrogen analysis indicates that he had a predominantly animal meat/diary diet with some marine fish, similar to diets of those from medieval Yorkshire but less marine fish than other parts of Scotland, i.e. Aberdeen and Orkney. 

The date of death suggests that he was buried within the graveyard associated with St Anthony’s Hospital, though may be one of the first burials associated with South Leith Parish Church if the early 1438 foundation date is to be believed.

(Image left)
Adult female, aged 25-35, Died: 1360-1435
Height: 151cm (4' 11').This is 4cm shorter than the average height for a medieval woman in this graveyard population which is on average 155cm (5' 1’’) which is in turn shorter than the UK average of 5' 2.5’’

She was buried in a communal grave comprising two other adult females and a child aged between seven and 12. This date of death indicated that she was buried within the graveyard associated with St Anthony’s Hospital. It is unclear if her death and those buried with her were related to the plague or some other infectious disease. 

(Middle image)
Male, age 25-35, Died: Mid-16th to mid-17th century.

(Images courtesy of City of Edinburgh Council)

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