Category Archives: Archaeology


Rickets in a young child
Rickets in a young child

Rickets was once a common bone disease of children. It has a number of potential causes, such as lack of Vitamin D or calcium, which lead to impaired mineralisation of the bone. Whilst Aberdonians in the past would have had a diet fairly rich in fish, which would have helped provide Vitamin D, any population is likely to have some cases of malnutrition. Rickets is usually regarded as a disease of the urban poor because they would probably also suffer from lack of sunlight (we can make Vitamin D in our skin when it is exposed to sunlight) as a result of cramped and smoky living conditions. One of the younger people buried in the grave yard of the Kirk of St Nicholas (and uncovered during the archaeological dig in 2006) had rickets. One of the legs is shown in the photograph. The effect of rickets is to make the bones soft and easily broken. It can be seen how thin and fragile the bone appears, although there is no evidence of a breakage.

Osteomalacia in the thighs of an adult
Osteomalacia in the thighs of an adult

The same condition in adults is called osteomalacia, although there can be some other causes as well as diet in adults. It is typically characterised by ‘bent legs’ although it can affect any bone not just those of the legs. The accompanying photograph shows the thigh bones of a person with osteomalacia. The curvature of the bone is very clear, but again this person does not seem to have any fractures.


As a footnote, in recent years there have been report of an increasing incidence in rickets in children. This is not because of poor living conditions but because of a wide and sensible use of sun protection!

Both the photographs, which are copyright of Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections and are used with permission, were taken during the detailed scientific study of the bones by Dr Paul Duffy, Brandanii Archaeology and Heritage who is a specialist osteoarchaeologist.

Problems with earwax?

We like to think that the modern world is sophisticated and far more advanced than our predecessors. When it comes to health and hygiene is this always true? Most of us will have experienced troublesome ear wax and it has probably been a problem throughout history. What do we do about it? Today we would probably use cotton wool buds or apply almond oil on cotton wool, if it does not clear go to the doctors to have our ears syringed. In the past there were ear scoops examples of which have been found to be in use from Roman times.

Post 19 Ear Scoop with belt loopIn the archaeological exploration in the former East Kirk of St Nicholas a beautiful ear scoop was found and is shown in the photograph to the right. This one has an intricately decorated shaft and near the end opposite to the scoop is a suspension loop. The latter may well have been used to fasten it to a collection of other cosmetic ‘tools’ such as scissors and tweezers, perhaps from a belt. The scales in the photographs have 1 cm divisions.

Post 19 (b) Plain ear scoop and tooth pickA second ear scoop was also found during the dig was a much plainer example. It can be seen in the second photograph that there is very little decoration, but it does have the short point at the opposite end to the scoop. This is similar to most ear scoops found in digs at other places in the UK. The sharpened point at the opposite end to the scoop was probably used as a tooth pick.

Why it was felt appropriate to include these items in burials? Or did they get into the soil some other way? This is open to speculation, but we can be grateful that we are able to enjoy the small but fascinating and beautiful object centuries later. A short health warning should be added. Inserting metal objects into the ear risks damaging the ear drum and so should be avoided. Remember the old adage “never put anything in your ear smaller than your elbow”!

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

Early dental work

There is archaeological evidence for dental procedures going back over 8000 years. In the middle ages in the UK dentists as we know them had not evolved as a profession. When people had dental problems they usually went to either a barber or a general physician, as was the case with many other medical problems. Practices were crude by modern standards, but the basic concepts of the causes of dental disease were starting to be understood. During the archaeological dig in the former East Kirk of St Nicholas, many of the human remains retained some teeth. In this post we are showing two examples where there had been some sort of dental work.


Post 16 (a)In the first photograph a gold wire is fastened by twisting round a tooth (to the right) and is then looped round a peg (to the left). This burial dates from between the 16th and 18th century, but was ‘disarticulated’, meaning that it was not a complete skeleton, but part of a burial which had been disturbed by later gravediggers. Evidence from other sites show that these pegs could be made of wood or could be real teeth, presumably purchased from another individual. One is left to speculate about the motives and any remuneration involved in such instances. However, the supporting teeth are rotten, so the ‘patient’ may have been more comfortable had they been removed.


Post 16 (b) False toothThe second photograph is much earlier – between mid 12th and mid 15th centuries – and was only found during the detailed study of the human remains.. Exactly what was intended is not clear, but the jaw of this middle age adult has a sawed square of bone or ivory in a cavity in place of a tooth. Medieval texts indicate that dental treatment from this period was largely based on herbal remedies, charms and amulets. However, there are also references to dentures made of human or cow bone, which fits what is shown here. It can also be seen that the other teeth are in a very poor condition and there is an abscess as well, so this man would have had a lot of pain. As a result he would have gained little if any relief, so it could be that this ‘peg’ is being used as a charm rather than an actual attempt to have a false tooth.


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

A silk cap?

SK129 with Silk (hat)Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

The photograph shows the rather fancy headwear of an elderly lady, who probably died between the 16th and 18th century. It seems to be made up of strips of silk ribbon sewn onto another material, maybe velvet or felt. The overall effect is of a thick, almost matted, appearance. The soil conditions in the dig area in the former East Kirk of St Nicholas in Aberdeen are quite unusual, which has allowed many items to survive which would have been lost in most other places. In this case it is the entire hat which has survived. Nothing more can be said about this item because it is another example of the archaeologists having a first reaction to a ‘find’, but until the post-excavation study is completed they cannot be certain. There is also the problem with samples like this because they need careful conservation if they are to be kept available for future generations to see. Help is needed to pay for this work.

In this case, we can add a little more information about the lady. Dr Paul Duffy ( his website is, our human bone specialist, has carried out a very detailed study of all the remains. He was able to identify that this lady had suffered a broken leg at some stage of her life. It had healed, but had left her with one leg twisted and shorter than the other, so she would have been quite lame in her later life.

The photograph is copyright Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections and is used with permission.

More Mason’s Marks

We are showing two other photographs in this post featuring different mason marks, so they belong to two different people.

The first photograph shows a mark almost like a stylised fish. Similar marks are recorded in a number of buildings in Scotland, including Glamis Castle and St Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen.


The mason mark in the second photograph is like a capital W with a vertical line from the centre. Quite a number of variations on this shape can be found, but it seems that this one is found in the Old Bridge of Dee and St Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen as well as further afield.


There are a number of people who study these mason marks. One such study is being made in the northeast of Scotland lead by Moira Greig. There is a fascinating website ( which explains the study, demonstrates the wide range of marks and gives pointers where to find them. If you are interested it is well work a visit.

Should you wish to try to find mason marks yourself, it is best to use a source of light shining across the surface of the stone, as the marks can be difficult to see at first!

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

St Nicholas Church week 13th Feb Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Mason’s Marks

Looking closely at the stonework of old buildings, it is possible to find symbols carved into individual stones. These are known as mason’s marks. There are a very wide range, but they are usually made up of straight lines because curves would be more difficult to carve. Whilst they could show the pride of the mason in his work, it is more likely that their primary use was as a form of accounting for payment – piece work.

In medieval times a mason was a very skilled craftsman. A mason had to undertake an apprenticeship under a master mason. When they were considered to have sufficient skill, they would be admitted to the Guild and they would adopt a ‘sign’ or ‘mark’ which they would carve onto future pieces of work to identify it as their work. Some records are sufficiently detailed to allow linkage between a mark and a named individual. It might also be that a basic symbol was handed down from one generation to another, with just a small change, usually an addition, being made to the symbol by the new master mason. The life of a mason was semi-nomadic, working on one building until it was complete then moving on to seek employment at another. Even when a mason found a new building, life was still not simple. When a mason arrived at a new building his work would first be tested by the Master Mason of the site. If acceptable he would probably be given simple tasks initially, where his mark would be used in a form of quality control. Once accepted, his mark would be used to claim payment for work done. If you would like to see more about the life and work of masons visit

Post 14(a) Star on stone round door (N vault) Post 14(a) Mason Mark (2)

During the archaeological dig in the former East Kirk a number of stones were found to have mason’s marks on them. In this post two similar ones, depicting a 5-pointed star are shown. Who the person was is not known, but it is not one which has been recorded around Aberdeen. The mark can be seen in Arbroath Abbey, St Monans Church and Dalgetty Castle. We will put up another post in a few days showing two other mason marks which can be found in other local buildings.

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

The value of bone

Bone has been used from prehistory for carving both useful and decorative items because it is readily available and easy to work with, yet durable when finished. However, bone does not survive in acid soils, so finding carved bone objects in an archaeological dig is exciting. Quite a number of carved bone items were found during the archaeological dig below the former East Kirk, which included some utilitarian items such as part of a comb. Other items were more interesting.

Post 11 Carved bone object - possible bible marker

The first illustration is a drawing, taken from the original in order to show the detail of the carving on both sides. The item has been broken at the bottom so exactly how long it was, or what it was used for, is uncertain. Given the context of a church, one possibility is that it was the ‘weighted end’ of a ribbon book mark, perhaps for marking a passage in a Bible.

Post 11 Bone gaming piece

The second item, however, is not exactly what would be expected in a church – a gaming piece! Indeed this was not the only distinctly secular item found – for example a number of small dice (about 3 or 4 mm only) was also found below what was in later years the kitchen. The rest is left to the imagination!!

During the archaeological excavation a large number of artefacts were uncovered. These require detailed study, evaluation and conservation. This costs money, but unless it is done there is a danger that they will be lost through deterioration. It is proposed to share some of the other artefacts through these posts over time.

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

The second scallop shell found

The photograph is copyright Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections and are used with permission.

About 2 months after the first scallop shell had been found a second one was found in a burial. The photograph, courtesy of the Aberdeen City Council Archaeology Unit, shows that this scallop shell was located over the left thigh. It was customary to sew the shell to a leather satchel hanging from the waist over the left leg, so this man was buried wearing the leather satchel bearing the scallop shell. The leather has not survived the centuries, but the shell has. That he was buried wearing this also indicates the importance which people placed on these pilgrimage tokens.


Scallop Shell Pilgrim Token

Coutesy Aberdeen City Council Archaeology Unit

The photograph is copyright Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections and are used with permission.

St James one of Jesus’ twelve apostles died about AD 44, perhaps the first Christian martyr. Tradition says his remains were taken by boat and buried in northern Spain – in Santiago de Compestella. A Cathedral was built on the site which became a major destination for pilgrims – which it remains today. Scallop shells are commonly found on the seashore in the area. Because of some reputed miracles, they became a symbol of pilgrimage to St James’ remains. There were different routes for the pilgrimage, but the minimum walk was of 60 miles. People who completed it would acquire a scallop shell as a token. During the archaeological dig four scallop shells were found. The first one found was not with any particular burial – perhaps the actual burial had been disturbed during preparations for a later burial. The picture shows this scallop shell. The two holes drilled in the shell allowed it to be sewn onto a garment. These finds show that people from Aberdeen were making that pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestella more than 500 years ago. Quite an undertaking!