Glimpses of Medieval Aberdeen and its People

AOC Archaeology Group was delighted to work with Aberdeen City Council ahead of redevelopment of the Aberdeen Art Gallery. The gallery was constructed on the grounds of Blackfriars Dominican Friary, founded between AD1222 and 1249. Excavations yielded a wealth of information about medieval Aberdeen, not least through the recovery of remains of 60 human skeletons and 4272 fragments of human bone, representing at least 381 individuals. In addition to the skeletal remains, abundant artefacts including dress accessories, personal ornaments, and coffin wood and fittings were recovered. Animal bones and fragments of pottery and glass tell us about wider activities.

The barrel-shaped lignite bead shown here (below, right) is one of the highlights of the artefact assemblage. It is incised with a cross-hatched diamond-patterned central band. During the early medieval period black organic rich stones were popular in jewellery making. It has been suggested that beaded necklaces were not fashionable during this period, leading to the presumption that they were probably associated with rosaries.

Aberdeen man, lignite bead

The ongoing post excavation work is examining the human remains in detail and will provide us with amazing information on the people who lived here: their age, sex, health and festyles. We will use radiocarbon dating to determine when they died: were they alive whilst the friary was active? Isotope analysis will help us understand their diet and origins: what did they eat, had they spent their whole lives locally or moved to Aberdeen later? As part of this ongoing work, Skeleton125 has undergone detailed examination and has provided us with a first fascinating glimpse of one of the people as recreated by forensic artist Hayley Fisher.

 SK125 represented the well-preserved remains of a mature adult male over the age of 46 years. He was between 159cm–166 cm in stature, which was shorter than the average male for the later medieval period. He also suffered from extensive dental disease and stiff joints. The strontium (87Sr/86Sr) isotope ratio for many individuals buried here suggest they were ‘locals’; however, SK125 spent his childhood in an area of older lithology, such as the Highlands, Outer Hebrides or east of the Cairngorms. Sulphur isotope data – which can reveal residence later in life – indicates that he may have spent the last years of his life in or around Aberdeen.

To recreate the facial appearance of SK125, forensic artist Hayley Fisher took detailed photographs and measurements of SK125’s skull and used those to work out how the muscles overlying the skull would have been attached. Using this information she was then able to overlay the skin and give us the person we see today. (above, left and centre) Although his hair and eye colour are Hayley’s interpretation, the measurements ensure that what we are seeing is accurate.