Medieval Knight found under the car park at ECCI

13 March 2013

An elaborately decorated sandstone slab with the telltale markings of a member of the nobility. The measure indicates 1m.

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The skeleton and grave of a Medieval Knight and the remains of a thirteenth century monastery are among dozens of discoveries made underneath a former car park at a city centre building site.

The discovery was made when archaeologists uncovered the corner of an elaborately decorated sandstone slab with the telltale markings of a member of the nobility - the carvings of the Calvary Cross and an ornate sword, which tells us this belonged to a high status individual such as a knight or other nobleman.

An excavation of the immediate area also uncovered an adult skeleton, which is likely to have once occupied the grave. An analysis of the skeleton and teeth will be able to us more about where the individual was born, what he ate, where he lived and how he died.

The car park had been demolished to make way for the University of Edinburgh’s new Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) building in the Old Town. The car park will make way for a rainwater-harvesting tank, which is among dozens of low carbon measures that designers hope will help create a highly efficient, sustainable building. It is expected to achieve a green building rating of “outstanding”, and if achieved will be the first historic building in the world to achieve this. Malcolm Fraser Architects have led the project with contractors Graham Construction.

The area was formerly the site of three significant historical buildings - the seventeenth century Royal High School, the sixteenth century Old High School, and the thirteenth century Blackfriars Monastery. As well as the grave, the excavation of the area has revealed the exact location of the Blackfriars Monastery, which was founded in 1230 by Alexander II (King of Scotland 1214-49) and destroyed during the Protestant Reformation in 1558. Until now its exact location was unknown.

Councillor Richard Lewis, Culture convener, City of Edinburgh Council, said:

"We hope to find out more about the person buried in the tomb once we remove the headstone and get to the remains underneath but our archaeologists have already dated the gravestone to the thirteenth century.

"This find has the potential to be one of the most significant and exciting archaeological discoveries in the city for many years, providing us with yet more clues as to what life was like in Medieval Edinburgh."

The refurbished building, which dates back to back to the Royal High School of 1777, will reopen as an innovation and skills hub in the summer. As well as the rainwater-harvesting tank, other innovative low carbon building measures include the use of renewable and low carbon energy sources to heat the building - from solar panels and connection to a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) scheme; careful selection of sustainable and recycled materials; a sophisticated energy monitoring system; and a high standard of insulation and airtightness. The finished building is expected to achieve a green building rating (BREEAM) of “outstanding”, and if achieved will be the first historic building in the world to achieve this.

ECCI Director Andy Kerr said:

“The ambition of the University to Edinburgh is to create a world leading physical hub for low carbon innovation and skills, so no corner has been cut to ensure the building ‘walks the walk’ in terms of social, economic and environmental sustainability. We always knew that the building retrofit might uncover historical artifacts – given the site’s history – but this Knight is an extraordinary and exciting find. We want our new building to play a key role in shaping Scotland’s future, as these historical buildings on this site did in their time.”

The project’s archaeological services have been provided by Edinburgh based Headland Archaeology and managed by Eddie Bailey. The archaeologist who found the grave, Ross Murray, studied at the University of Edinburgh’s former Archaeology building, which until 2010 was housed at High School Yards, just a few feet from where the Knight’s grave was found.

Ross Murray said:

“We obviously knew the history of the High School Yards site while we were studying here but I never imagined I would be back here to make such an incredible discovery. We used to take breaks between classes just a few feet away in the building’s doorway and all that time the grave was lying under the car park."

High School Yards has always been a significant architectural site and has gone through many incarnations since its beginnings as the Blackfriars Monastery in 1230. As the 17th century 'Royal High School' it boasted Sir Walter Scott and the inventor of the blackboard James Pillans as its most famous pupils and infamous murderers Burke and Hare went about their sordid business just behind the main building in the adjacent Surgeon's Square.

After the Old High School closed in 1829 it became a surgical hospital and later it returned to its roots as a seat of learning as the University of Edinburgh moved in. It has been home to the departments of Science & Engineering, Geography, Dentistry and in latter years Archaeology. Work began on the new Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation in February 2012 and is expected to finish in the summer. The Centre brings together students, academics, Governments, businesses and communities to work towards a low carbon future.


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