Revealing the faces of Leithers past

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 the Medieval residents of the former burgh 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.

Now 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. 

Richard Lewis, City of Edinburgh Council’s Culture Convener, said: “The unearthing of such important remains was a major discovery five years ago, but to be able to gain an even closer insight into Leith’s medieval past is incredibly exciting. 

“Edinburgh has an undeniably rich and interesting history, but work like this means the whole city can truly appreciate our heritage.” 

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. 

“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.”  

Professor Caroline Wilkinson from the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, University of Dundee, said: “The MSc Forensic Art course has been running for eight years at the University of Dundee, and over the last few years a fruitful partnership has been built with the City of Edinburgh Council and the Museum of Edinburgh. 

“Postgraduate students have been using forensic techniques to analyse the burials unearthed by the Edinburgh Tram project and through these internships and research projects this has developed into a productive and stimulating collaboration. Through craniofacial analysis it is now possible to exhibit the faces of local people from Edinburgh’s past and gain insight into the lives of our ancestors.”


302 complete or near complete burials were excavated with fragments of at least a further 100 individuals recovered

33 bodies dated with dates ranging from 1315AD – 1638AD

Around 20% of burials pre-date the estimated date of establishment of South Leith Parish Church in 1438 with around 33% earlier than the official foundation date of 1483.

No graves appear to post-date 1640. This may be an effect of the plague and 1649 Siege resulting in a smaller post-plague burial ground. This could also explain actions of Church Council In 1790 who declared they knew of no burials in this area.

Average heights for adult females was 155cm (5ft 1’’) and for males 169cm (5ft 5.5’’). These are shorter than for the UK averages of 164cm / 171cm.

The vast majority (90%) of the population died before they reached the age of 30-35, with with peaks on mortality occurring in older children (7-12).

The high number of child deaths (approx. 32%) also reflects this age group's susceptibility to disease and malnutrition.

The vast majority were buried in the Christian manner east-west on their backs. However two children were buried face down.

Strontium and Oxygen Isotopic Analysis undertaken by Dr Kate Britton, Aberdeen University, of a sample of 18 bodies indicates that around 80% spent their childhoods in the Leith or Edinburgh area. The remaining individuals grew up within a radius of 25-50km.

One burial one dated between 1426 and 1516 provided possible evidence of women dying in late pregnancy or as the result of child birth, with the remains of neonate bones found across the pelvis.

Three communal graves were discovered, made up predominantly of adult females and children or adolescents.

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