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"Archaeology and Transport Infrastructure" by John A. Lawson MA, MCIFA, FSA Scot, Archaeologist, Edinburgh City Council: Tuesday 5 April 2022

John A. Lawson MA, MCIFA, FSA Scot, Archaeologist, Edinburgh City Councild

John A. Lawson MA, MCIFA, FSA Scot, Archaeologist, Edinburgh City Council

© John A. Lawson.

Our heritage lies beneath our feet, and dealing with archaeology has become a significant element in infrastructure projects' timelines. HS2 has made digs at its sites big news, and some years ago ARCH led by Susan Kruse surveyed the archaeology of the Inverness-Kyle of Lochalsh railway.

Locations in Scotland visited the BBC2 series "Digging for Britain" have included our earliest railway the 1722 Waggonway in its 300th anniversary year at Cockenzie, and in Edinburgh the Trams for Newhaven project which has yielded many finds

John Lawson heads the City of Edinburgh Council Archaeology Service which provides a key role in protecting Edinburgh's Historic Environment by offering a range of services that includes archaeological consultancy advice across the Council and to outside agencies, developers and members of the public on issues arising from planning and development proposals, forestry and land management projects & maritime development, managing and maintaining the Council's Historic Environment Record (HER), providing Archaeological and Heritage Policy Advice, undertaking Archaeological Project Management and managing the Council's Museum Service's Archaeological Collections.

Trams to Newhaven is the second phase in Edinburgh's tramline which began with a route from the Airport to the city centre that revealed traces of prehistoric, dark age settlements and the medieval village of Gogar. However, advance works carried out at that time in Leith due to the chance discovery of human remains outside St Marys Kirk revealed the remains of substantial hitherto unrecorded section of the kirk's graveyard under the road. A little of what might be store as the line was continued from the New Town down towards the Port of Leith and the historic shore whose development had commenced before the 12th century when it was given to Holyrood Abbey in its foundation charter.

Thomson's map of 1822 shows us Leith's Napoleonic Sea defences, where the Old West (Queen's) Dock was excavated in 2019. Preparations for a Cala Homes site showed how extension of the dry dock in the late 19th century had cut through the old bastion, already penetrated by the Caledonian Railway in the 1860s. Only fragments remain of the sea-wall, and the Ocean Drive area was further redeveloped for the building of the Ocean Terminal completed in 2001. Evidence for the gradual reclamation of the shore from the 16th/17th centuries, originally following the line of Commercial St, Baltic St and Salamander St have also been unearthed in Constitution St. This includes an early sea wall, a fine cache of clay pipes dating from the mid-17th century and possible 18th century slipway.. Also brought to light in backfill was the right fin of a sperm whale which, since these times long predated commercial whaling, can only be presumed to have become stranded on the shore. In Leith Walk near Smith's Place a 18th century masonry structure of uncertain purpose with timber uprights and a drain were found overlying a well-preserved section of the medieval Leith Walk.

At the in-town end of the second phase a spectacular find of much more recent origin at the "Pilrig muddle", where Leith's modern electric trams connected with Edinburgh's antiquated cable system, was the latter's pulley-wheels eight feet across and weighing between two and three tonnes which seem to have been discarded there after an unsuccessful attempt to remove them on conversion to electric operation in 1924. They will now merit preservation, with other wheels already on display at the old Henderson Row depot and a section of cable visible at Waterloo Place.

In the middle of the route the Petworth map showing the siege of Leith at the height of the Reformation in 1559-60 reveals St Mary's Church tucked in a corner of the fortification, and two cannonballs were found during excavation of the South Leith graveyard used between 1300 and 1650. When Constitution Street was cut through the graveyard 140 years later, the Kirk insisted that it had not been in use at the latter date, for which they could be forgiven since there had been an outbreak of the plague in 1645.

With 380 sets of human remains investigated during the advance works, a further 385 were examined at Constitution Street during 2020/1, when CoVid required socially distanced methods of working, prior to laying of the trackbed for the tramline. The price of timber meant that in mediaeval times two-thirds of bodies were buried in a shroud. It seems that when the Victorians put through a sewer they may have disrespectfully taken out burials. The unexpected discovery in the southern corner of the graveyard of a large charnel-pit during the taking down of the graveyard's 1790's wall may be the remains of these burials given indicated numbers.

Plague, cholera and smallpox may have been the commonest causes of death affecting people of all ages, with evidence of shroud-pins on some skeletons, Adults were commonly interred alongside children. A woman laid on her side may have been a murder victim. A 15th century plague-pit that predated the church had 27 skeletons buried 4 or 5 deep. An adult male with an abscess on his left side had probably suffered from infection to a broken tibia, while an adult female displayed a compressed skull fracture which maybe suggested treatment at nearby St Anthony's Hospital. Artists carried out facial reconstructions to show people might have appeared in life. Medieval burgage plots show a boundary ditch which mark the boundary of the graveyard until establishment of the church in 1483. The area exposed for the tramworks skirted a sand quarry 10 metres wide and 3 metres deep.

Other aspects of the tram extension have included removal of the Robert Burns statue at the Foot of the Walk for safe keeping and a spring-clean over a couple of years during which a time-capsule beneath was disinterred and replaced by a new one containing poems by local schoolchildren and a mask to mark the pandemic. The clock at London Road and its sister in Tollcross and Morningside were taken away by conservation at Smith of Derby, and Shona Kinloch's iconic pigeons, a notable piece of public art at Elm Row, received attention by Powderhall Bronze.

People were welcome to watch the excavations at Constitution Street provided they did not photograph the archaeologists at work. Public engagement included involvement of school pupils studying STEM subjects, blogs on the Trams to Newhaven website and an interview that John gave to Professor Alice Roberts on BBC2's "Digging for Britain". For the success of the project a debt of gratitude was due to many parties including Morrison Utility Services, Turner & Townsend, Scottish Gas Networks and the archaeologist of GUARD who patiently worked away through the pandemic, in all weathers and under the public gaze.

What constitutes archaeology is open to interpretation when discussing more modern 20th/21st century remains, but is unquestioningly thought of to embrace anything pre-1900 and 20th century industrial, maritime and military remains and buildings. Ever since the pioneering post-war rescue excavations in London (now incorporated within the Mithraeum Bloomberg Space project) supported by Winston Churchill at the end of his premiership which restored the Roman temple of Mithraes to its place of discovery, archaeological work has gradually become a standard part of development procedures, written into English law in 1990 and into Scottish a couple of years later. Today the work is standard practice.

regulated by Local Authority Archaeologists but undertaken by commercial archaeological companies working for the developers. The teams of professional archaeologists on development sites have their enthusiast counterparts undertaking research excavations and also in the ranks of detectorists popularised in the gentle television comedy series. In Scotland discoveries are covered by Treasure Trove : for everyone the law is the same, that in essence all chance discoveries belong to the state and it is illegal not to declare them. However, it is often the case that finds are returned to the finders, and when retained a reward is given.

Report by John Yellowlees.


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