Tag Archives: Finds

Worked stones

During the archaeological dig in 2006 a large number of worked stones were uncovered. On some stones, this working was quite small, for example one flat surface, or a rough piece with some chisel marks or a mason mark. Others had been carefully carved to produce a complex profile which had once been part of a building, but had since been discarded. One thing which became clear during the dig was that, as each new development of the building took place, the previous building was only partially demolished but not completely removed. It appears that some of the stone was either reused or it was left in situ.

A piece of shaped stone reused in a pillar base built in the late 1490s

The first photograph shows a piece of sandstone, probably from an earlier doorway, but reused in one of the 15th century pillar bases.

The next three photographs show a pillar column, first as it was being uncovered by the archaeologist, second once removed from the ground and third in comparison with one of the pillars in Drum’s Aisle

A slender broken pillar being excavated.
Part of the pillar once excavated







The excavated pillar in Drum’s Aisle beside a pillar


A carved stone, possibly from a doorway in an earlier building

The final photograph is of another carved piece of stone which may have been part of a door or archway in an earlier building. A detailed study of these stones has still to be completed but once done they could tell us a great deal about the appearance of the previous buildings.

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


During the 2006 archaeological dig in the former East Kirk a great many burials were uncovered. Some were complete, intact burials, whilst others were incomplete – disarticulated is the term used by archaeologists. That many burials were found should not be a surprise since most of the ground excavated had, in earlier times, been part of the graveyard and was incorporated into the church as it expanded. All the remains have been studied in close detail and a great deal has been learned about the life that these people from the past (roughly 1200 to 1700) lived. However, this post is more about the actual burials.

E84 St Nicholas Site Large pin Week 34 1209 Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
A shroud pin

The majority of burials were carried out using either a linen shroud or a wooden coffin – the former was less expensive than the latter. No actual shrouds were found because the vegetable material used to make the cloth had decomposed over the centuries, but copper alloy pins (see photograph) which held the shroud in place were found in abundance and there was some stitching which might have come from a shroud. The wood used in coffins was more resistant to decomposition, so some wooden coffins were found, although many of them had collapsed. Metal fittings were also found from many of them. In some, coins were embedded in the wood (see photograph), which helps the archaeologists to date them.

Post 59 (b) Coins in a wooden coffin
Coins in a wooden coffin lid

In addition there were a number of simple stone cists holding burials of babies around the early apse. Not far away there was an example of a log burial. In this a tree had been split in two, roughly hollowed out and charred before using it to bury a young girl.


However, in times past other styles of burial were employed including using a stone sarcophagus. The word comes from the Greek and means ‘flesh eating’, because the stone, usually limestone, was thought to speed the decomposition of the corpse interred within it. Originally a sarcophagus was made of stone and carved out to take the body. Four broken parts of one of these was found during the dig, but it has not been accurately dated. The head and shoulder part is shown in the photograph. It is made of limestone – not a type of stone found near Aberdeen.

E84 St Nicholas Site Week 26 27 July 06 Sarcophagus Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
The ‘head end’ of the broken sarcophagus

The history of the use of sarcophagi is a long one. In Roman times, they were placed against a wall and often had the three visible sides decorated with carvings. They continued to be used in Christian Europe, usually for important people such as royalty or leading churchmen. As they gradually became more elaborate they were placed in prominent positions in churches, frequently including a recumbent effigy on the lid. Plain sarcophagi were placed in crypts. As time passed, space became a problem inside churches. So a modified practice of having ‘false’ sarcophagi in the graveyard developed. These frequently appear as chest-like structures, sometimes with ornamentation, but below ground there was no traditional stone sarcophagus. Rather it used a traditional wooden, occasionally lead-lined, coffin burial with the above ground memorial indicating the social status of the deceased. Many examples of these can be seen in the St Nicholas Kirkyard. The term sarcophagus has been less widely used since the Renaissance and is now really only used as an archaeological term.

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


Finding gold in most archaeological digs is unusual. Not surprisingly very little was found during the dig in 2006 inside the former East Kirk of St Nicholas. Perhaps Aberdonians were very careful with their valuable items! However three gold items were uncovered during the excavation.


The first photograph shows a spiralled gold object found at the beginning of May 2006 in a family burial vault. It has not been accurately dated, but coins in the same vault suggest that it dates from 1690 at the latest, but could be earlier. Exactly what it is remains a little obscure, but it is thought that it is probably an earring. The second illustration is a drawing of this item, included as much as anything to show the skill of the archaeological illustrator. Preparing detailed drawings such as this is an important step in the post-excavation work which follows a dig. It is a great skill to be able to produce such exquisitely detailed records of the items found in the dig, often showing detail which does not show in a photograph.

SF 466 ....NB Gold peace Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection
Gold, possibly an earring as found
Post 51 Drawing of gold object
Drawing of object in the photograph









In early September 2006 a gold ring was found – shown in the second photograph. It is a simple ring with a cuff on it, again perhaps an earring or possibly a finger ring. The archaeologist who found it had been involved in digs for 25 years and this was the first gold item he had ever uncovered. That shows how unusual gold items are!

E84 St Nicholas Site Week 33 Gold ear-ring 1231 Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
Simple gold ring found during the dig
E84 St Nicholas Site Post Ex Week 51 Gold Earing  Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
Gold ring found in a skull when cleaning the human remains







The third photograph shows another gold ring, similar to the second one. However, this was not found until after the dig was complete when the human remains were being cleaned. It was found in a skull as this was being cleaned.

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


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.)


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).

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.

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).

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 http://www.discoverbutearchaeology.co.uk/), 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.