Category Archives: Archaeology

Bones in walls!

During the archaeological dig in 2006 there were a number of places where bones were found either under a wall or built into a wall. One reason for this arises because the walls were built in what had been, up to that time, the graveyard – in other words the graves already existed and the wall was simply built on top.

E84 St Nicholas Site Week 28 Skeleton in wall - SK426 Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
Bones under the 15th century wall

The first two photographs show examples of this under the 15th century wall. The first photograph clearly shows how the wall was built on top of the burial. In the second photograph, there is also a bone higher up the wall.



Post 47 (b) bones DSCF0169 Bones in exterior (south) wall
Bones under and in 15th century wall

When the bones are built into the wall they would have been placed there deliberately when building was taking place. Any soil disturbance in the graveyard could disturb existing burials. So digging a new grave was likely to uncover some remains. Likewise, when foundations were being dug the same could happen. In the latter situation it was normal to incorporate the bones within the wall. This might seem strange to modern minds, but bone is a very strong material and so could be used in this way (the first two photographs show bones more than 500 years old and still supporting the wall).


E84 St Nicholas Site Week 35 Stewart (Robbo) with skeletons in wall (Ian's section) Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
Large collection of bones built into a wall

The third photograph shows a much larger assemblage of bones found in a wall towards the west end of the dig area. Presumably several graves were disturbed during site preparation. The archaeologist is actually working on a grave right at the foot of the wall.


Post 47 (d) DSCN0446
Bones sticking out of a 19th century wall




The final photograph shows a wall, which still exists, which was probably built when the East Kirk was rebuilt in 1837. It shows some of the bones which stick out from the wall. There are many more, including one or two skulls in the whole wall.


First three photographs are copyright and used with permission of Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Copper alloy chain

E84 St Nicholas Site Week 32 Building in area B - work in progress Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
General view of sacristy, east wall across bottom (yellow buckets inside sacristy)

The first photograph in this post shows the lower part of the walls of a building to the north of the main church building as it was in the 13th to 15th centuries. Because of its position it is assumed that this would have been a sacristy – a place for keeping vestments, sacred vessels, books and other items used in worship and also for keeping church records. There was some rather tentative evidence when this was being uncovered during the archaeological dig of 2006 that this could have been a two-storey building. Inside there were many intriguing artefacts.


E84 St Nicholas site Week 33 Chain 1203 Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
A copper alloy chain found in the sacristy

The second photograph shows one of these artefacts, a delicate copper alloy chain. Its construction is unusual with a ‘figure of eight’ shaped link, so that it produces a double chain. Many different alloys of copper have been used, by adding a second metal, for example bronze (copper and tin) and brass (copper and zinc). Their use was common because of their resistance to corrosion – as this photograph shows, since this chain is likely to have been in the soil for more than 600 years. The scale shown has 1cm divisions, so it can be seen that creating this chain would have been quite an intricate task. The chain has not yet been conserved because we have not had sufficient funds. Once it has been cleaned and conserved the true craftsmanship will become more obvious. We are always open to offers to help with the post-excavation work which still has to be carried out.

(The photographs are copyright Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections and used with permission.)

A modern problem!

Skeletal remains can show quite a lot about the health of the deceased person. In the human remains uncovered during the archaeological dig in the former East Kirk in 2006, there were clear indications of diseases which are uncommon today, such as the rickets and osteomalacia shown in a previous post. However, some conditions are still prevalent today; indeed, they might be increasing. This post shows such an example ─ bunions!!

Technically, a bunion is called hallux abducto valgus deformity. It forms when there is pro−longed sideways pressure on the big toe (the hallux) forcing it inwards. The tissue around the joint becomes swollen and tender to touch and some bony tissue may be deposited. Both of these contribute to the pain associated with bunions. Not all the swelling is caused by these effects on the joint, because some is the exposed end of the first metatarsal. It is salutary that societies where shoes are not worn do not have cases of bunions.

Post 40 Bunion
An example of a bunion found in the dig

A number of individuals were found during the archaeology who had suffered from bunions. One example is shown, the photograph having been taken by osteoarchaeologist Paul Duffy (Brandanii Archaeology and Heritage, during his detailed study of the remains.

St Mary’s Chapel wall

In this post, we continue reviewing the development of the building as shown by the walls uncovered during the archaeology. This one looks at the building of St Mary’s Chapel. As with most of the early work there is insufficient written information to say when the work took place. It is known that from the early 15th century, plans were being made for the expansion of the relatively small main church to create a cathedral-sized building. However, this was hampered by the lie of the land. The existing building was on the top a small hill, with the ground sloping away gradually to the south towards the harbour and to the north towards the Loch. To the west was the Denburn valley and immediately to the east the fairly steep slopes of the Putachie Burn. Some idea of the latter can be seen today in the form of the steps down from the Kirkyard to the top of Correction Wynd.

In order to facilitate the expansion to the east a separate building was erected. This was a chantry chapel, now known as St Mary’s Chapel, which would act as an undercroft to allow the expansion of the church building above it at a later date. During the archaeological dig the west wall of the Chapel was uncovered and is shown as it is today in the photograph. The exact date of building the Chapel is not known, but it was probably around the 1440s. At the time it was erected St Mary’s Chapel was a completely separate building in the burial ground, about 10 feet to the east of the existing church building. There were burials in the ground between the two buildings and the west wall of St Mary’s Chapel was actually built on top of some of the burials.

Post 39 St Mary's Chapel wall
West wall of St Mary’s Chapel from the dig area

There are two doorways through the wall which would have allowed access to the expanded building above – one can be seen in the photograph to the right, with a light in the Chapel showing through. One doorway lead to a stairway, part of which still remains. The other may have had a stair, but there is also evidence that there was some sort of sloping path or ramp (this will feature in a later blog). The wall itself has various features, the most obvious of which can be seen in the  centre of the photograph, namely the protruding stones. It is assumed that these were built like this to allow the expanded church building to key into the wall. They would have acted as the springer, or lowest voussoir, of the arches supporting the floor of the expanded church later in the century. The top of the wall in the photograph was at the floor level of the former East Kirk. The soil which can be seen is at the ground level of Aberdeen a millennium ago. The vertical steel beam to the right is part of the temporary supports for the gallery above.


Week 34 Large pin 12-13th century
Large metal pin

We return to finds in the archaeological dig for this post. A great many pins were found during the dig. Probably a large proportion of them would have originally been used as shroud pins, but they could have been used for clothing and other related purposes. Most of the pins were of metal. The first one was large, more like a small nail and was found in the area to the north of the 12th-13th century church, in what had been the burial ground. It is very plain and functional.


Pin with bead 1074 Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection
Pin with glass bead, note marks of 4 other beads

By contrast, the second one is smaller, a little over an inch long, and is more decorative. It is made of a copper alloy and has been decorated with a small glass bead. However, if you look closely, there are marks on the shaft of the pin indicating that, in fact, there had been four other glass beads on the original pin. Given this and its size, this must have been more for decoration than function.


Week 42 Decorated bone pin
Small carved bone pin

Metal was not the only material used. The final picture shows a small decorated pin made of bone. Again it is quite small, so the carving must have required considerable skill.


(The photographs are copyright Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections and are used with permission).

Clay-pipe teeth!

Smoking tobacco in a pipe became popular in Europe in the late 16th century soon after the introduction of tobacco. At first tobacco was very expensive, so the bowl of a pipe was made small. As production of tobacco increased, so it became cheaper and the bowls were progressively made larger. A wide range of materials were used to make the pipes, but a common one in the early years was clay because it did not burn along with the tobacco. The disadvantage of clay is that it was easily broken. So, through the late 16th century and for the next couple of centuries, many towns around Europe had sizeable cottage industries producing the pipes to meet the demand to replace the breakages!

As with 20th century cigarettes, so with pipes, workmen often liked to have them in their mouths whilst working. To help a short-stemmed pipe was developed for this purpose, which could easily be held in the teeth to make it less likely that it would be dropped – and probably broken!Post 33 (a) Pipe smoker

However, the constant rubbing of the teeth against the clay wore the surface of the tooth away. This produced a characteristic shape in the affected teeth. The first two pictures illustrating this article show the teeth of two individuals found during the archaeological dig on 2006. The ‘clay-pipe teeth’ wearing is obvious. The third photograph shows the same thing, but this time in a younger adult, before the Post 33 (b) Teeth worn away by chewing on clay pipeteeth had been fully worn away, but nevertheless indicating that he had been smoking a pipe for quite some time. During the dig a large number of fragments of pipes were found, but none were complete.Post 33 (c) Another example of teeth worn by pipe in a younger adult





(The photographs are copyright Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections and are used with permission).

A love token?

For Valentine’s Day, we feature possibly one of the more romantic finds during the archaeological dig.

Quite a number of items of jewellery were found during the archaeological excavation. In the early part of June 2006 one particular burial of a young man was being uncovered. Resting on his ribs, just above where the heart would have been, was a silvered heart shaped brooch with what could be an arrow through it. The photograph shows the brooch in situ just as it was uncovered.

Post 31 Love token
The heart brooch on the chest of the young man

Cupid was a god in Roman mythology (known as Eros in Greek mythology) who was often portrayed as a winged youth or cherub. From quite an early date the iconography included a bow and arrow, so that anyone pierced by one of Cupid’s arrows would be filled with love and desire. In the mythological stories Cupid’s arrow was often used as a device for progressing the story. The idea of Cupid or Eros has developed and changed over the centuries, but remains a firmly associated with the heart and human love.

St Valentine, is another of the early Christian saints about which nothing is certain. Despite this St Valentine’s Day is a feast day in the Anglican and Lutheran churches amongst others. There was no link between St Valentine and romance until Chaucer mentioned it in the late 14th century. The idea developed and by the 17th century exchanging romantic messages at the feast of St Valentine was well established. By the end of the 18th century collections of suggested verses were published! The introduction of improved postal services encouraged the development of Valentine Cards in the 19th century and it is now big business. Images of hearts and arrows certainly appear regularly in designs.

Of course there is no way of knowing the detailed history of this particular brooch, but it is nice to imagine a grieving young woman leaving this token of eternal love on the body of the deceased at the time of burial.

12th Century Chancel wall

In October 2014, when we posted about the east end of the 12th century building, we indicated the intention for a series of posts giving further information about the stages of development of the present building. This is the first of this series with the rest appearing intermittently during the course of 2015.

Pillar base ( Central ) in raft IB Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection
Part of the 12th century north transept wall with pillar base in centre

When the archaeological dig began in 2006 it was not known what, if anything, would remain of previous buildings on the site, since each could have been demolished before erecting the next building. The reality was that a great deal was preserved. Thus, the lower levels of the whole of the chancel of the 12th century building were uncovered. Whilst both the north and south walls (the side walls of the chancel) were intact, the photographs in this blog are of the north wall. The stonework from the north wall was well preserved and can be seen in the first photograph. The wall is about 4 feet thick from inside to outside. However, some of the wall had been removed when the church building was being expanded in the late 1400s. This later building was to have massive pillars to carry much of the weight of the roof. These pillars required to have very stable foundations to avoid any danger of movement, so the builders made use of the existing walls. They did this by removing some stones to create circular ‘gaps’ into which large stones were placed to form the pillar bases. This ensured that there would be no east-west movement. The first photograph shows the north wall, viewed from inside the chancel, with a 15th century pillar base built into the 12th century wall. The pillar base is distinguishable by its curved shape (in the centre under the measuring pole). To its right is some ‘flat’ wall from the 12th century and then another pillar base at the right hand end of the wall.

One of the smaller stones
One of the smaller stones
Post 30 (c) Week 26 One of the foundation stones
One of the larger stones in situ
Post 30 (d) Week 30 Removal of large stone
Mechanical means were needed to remove larger stones

As part of the excavation it was necessary to remove both the original walls and the pillar bases. The size of some of the stones used to form the pillar bases was impressive. The second photograph shows Stewart Buchanan, deputy leader of the dig, carrying a smaller stone. The third photograph shows Stewart with one of the larger stones and deciding it is a bit too big for him to carry! Indeed to remove these it was necessary to erect a block and tackle to lift them into a mechanical tipper to get them out of the building, as shown in the final photograph. That the builders of more than 500 years ago could handle these stones and accurately place them into position deserves every credit.

To the east end the walls had been rebuilt to bond with the new east end as described in the 20 October blog. At the west end, the wall emerges from the walls of Drum’s Aisle which was the transept of that 12th century building. Drum’s Aisle is still used today and is part of the Kirk of St Nicholas Uniting and also houses St John’s Chapel, often known as the ‘Oil Chapel’. It is obvious, but it is worth noting that, until the late 1400s, the church building was far smaller than the present day building. Outside the walls (the opposite side to the photograph) was the graveyard which was taken inside the building when it was expanded in the late 15th century. Once the Mither Kirk Project redevelopment is complete it will be possible to see the western ends of both the north and south walls as they have been kept and will become a feature at either side of the early apse (see blog on 4 May 2014).

The photographs, which are copyright Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections, are used with permission.

A Pilgrim Token?

During the archaeological excavation in the former East Kirk of St Nicholas several items were found which produced uncertainty as to exactly what they are, where they are from or what their significance is. This is about one such find.

Post 25 Pilgrim token drawing
        Drawing of the find

During the excavation a small piece of lead alloy was found on one of the burials, which, on closer examination, was found to have a picture on its surface. On a photograph this does not show up very clearly, so the illustrator working with the team produced a very detailed drawing of what she saw. It emerges that it depicts the Pieta, the body of the dead Christ on the lap of his mother Mary. From the size marker, you can see it is only about 2.5 cm (1 inch) across. The Pieta image is very common and can be found in many churches – there is one in the apse window of St Mary’s Chapel which we will probably feature here next Easter. Mary was a particular focus of devotion around the 15th century at the time that St Mary’s Chapel was being built. This particular item was found with the burial of the lady who had osteomalacia, the adult version of rickets (featured in the post on 6th October 2014), possibly caused by an underlying physical condition.

However, that does not explain what this is, or what its purpose was. One theory is that it was a Pilgrim Badge or Pilgrim Token. These were quite common from the 14th to mid-16th centuries. A very well known example is the scallop shell which featured in our posts on 3rd and 6th March 2014. These tokens were purchased (or collected) by a person on a pilgrimage and worn on an outer garment to show that they had been to that particular holy place. In many ways, they are a parallel to modern day souvenirs. Apart from being a symbol of piety, there were also some superstitions about the protective and healing powers of some of these badges.

At present we do not know the origin of this badge. As far as has been found so far, the design is unique, so it is unlikely to be from one of the ‘well known’ pilgrimage destinations. Could it even be related to our own St Mary’s Chapel? There is no known evidence of pilgrimage to it. Considerably more study will take place as part of the post-excavation studies which still have to be completed once the financial resource is available to pay for them.

(The drawing is copyright Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections and are used with permission).

How the soil was removed during the archaeology

By its very nature, an archaeological dig produces a lot of ‘waste’ material. The practical problem is what to do with it. One option is to store it nearby, however, this was not an option in the dig in the former East Kirk of St Nicholas for two reasons. One was simply that the amount of spoil would be too great to be stored in the Kirkyard where public access had to be maintained and where there were many historic memorials. Additionally the space created by the dig was to be used as a new level in the proposed development of the building. It was, therefore, going to be necessary to remove the spoil using skips to landfill. That in itself created a problem, because the skip could not be accommodated in the Kirkyard. However, a location was available at the top of Correction Wynd. This was at a lower level than the access to the dig site with public footpaths and stairways in between.

Post 24 (a) Starting work on conveyor
First stage in erecting the conveyor inside

The solution was to open part of the wall high up on the east end of the building where there had been a larger window than the present one and then have one of those plastic bucket chutes down to the waiting skip. Many people walking on St Nicholas Street were startled by the rumbling noise produced when material went down! There was also an internal logistic problem to be overcome – how to get the spoil up to the height of the opening from the dig which would be going down to a depth of about 5 m (15 feet) lower than the opening. The answer was to use a small sectional conveyor belt system. The first photograph shows the initial steps erecting this inside the apse area of the former church. This shows the opening created in the wall and the ‘delivery’ section in place, with more sections being erected.

Post 24 (b) Men at work Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection
Receiving end of the conveyor extended down below floor level

The second photograph shows it completed (although it could be moved, shortened or extended as necessary) with the ‘receiving end’ nearest the camera. Its method of working is fairly obvious, as the baffles on the conveyor belt caught the spoil and moved it up to the end of the section where it dropped into the next section and so on, until is went out into the chute. It worked very efficiently. Already on this photograph the conveyor is extending down a few feet below the original floor level.




Post 24 (c) Gen view 16th May 06Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection
Seen from above, the conveyor extended down into the main dig

The final photograph is a more general view of the dig but shows the conveyor in the lower right extending well into the dig area. The coloured plastic trugs at the side are full of spoil waiting to be loaded (it was not left running all the time!). As the dig progressed, the conveyor was moved to the opposite side, to the centre and also extended downwards as material was removed.

Problem solved!!

(The photographs are copyright Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections and are used with permission).