News from Current Work at India Buildings, Edinburgh

Exploring Medieval Burgage Plots

11 September 2018

Since the previous update, work on site has progressed with the focus on the excavation of four medieval burgage plots found to underlie the post-medieval structures.

The first of these was located to the north west corner of site. This plot was was the most simple of the four, containing only a deep deposit of garden soil built up over many generations of site use. At the south end of this plot was a stone lined well (mentioned in a previous update) believed to date from its final phases of use. The plot was bounded by a sequence of three phases of boundary walls. These were all composed of two thin parallel walls with a central gap. From the remains of poorly preserved wooden posts in this gap it is thought that these were the supports of a wooden fence boundary.

The second plot was located at the north east corner of site. This plot shared the dividing boundary walls with plot one. From the remains of surviving walls at the rear (south) of the plot it is thought that this plot may have developed before plot one, with the first boundary wall separating it from perhaps an open landscape. Deposits in this plot produced a far more interesting narrative for this area. Like plot one, it had a stone lined well (at it's north end) linked to its final period of use. This was identical in construction to the well of plot one. This well was excavated to a depth of over 5m but the base could not safely be reached. The fill deposit was intentional backfill material of stones and clay throughout.

At the south end of the plot a more complex sequence of development was revealed. Work there initially uncovered a made ground of dumped waste composed of rocks, pale brown mortar, and animal bones. This was likely laid down as ground improvement contemporary with the well. Below this was a huge pit containing large quantities of ceramics (below, left) and animal bones. These included complete skulls of two horses (below,  far right), a pig (below, second from right) and several sheep. The function of this pit was unclear, but is fill deposits indicate animal processing within the nearby area. This large pit had in turn cut through two features of an earlier phase of site use. These included a 'kidney’ shaped pit with a lining of small cobbles, bonded together with pale brown mortar. The fill of this pit was composed of concreted mortar and white lime with preserved grasses and organic fibers. This has been tentatively identified as being used for the mixing of construction mortar.

ceramic and animal bone

medieval costrelThe second feature was a round stone lined pit. Further excavation of this feature uncovered that is was another stone lined well. This was smaller and more crudely made than the two later wells. Excavation of this well has produced numerous finds of animal bone and hair, metal working waste, leather fragments, and ceramic fragments. At a depth of around 2m however a much more significant find was uncovered. A perfectly preserved leather bag/bottle was removed from the waterlogged fill. When cleaned this was found to be a medieval ‘costrel’ or drinking vessel (right). Excavation of this plot is ongoing and further excavation of the well will be undertaken in the coming week.

The third plot was uncovered in the middle of the site. Unlike plot one and two this plot was orientated on an east-west axis. This was separated from plot one and two by the rear walls of these plots. To the south it was separated from plot four by a more substantial wall made from rounded (natural, not quarried) stone and clay. The interior of the plot had the truncated remains of a cobble surface. This appeared to be cambered and may have linked to a lane or street. Below this layer the remains of two large pits and a small drain have begun to appear.

The final plot was located at the south end of site, (just off the cowgate), on the same orientation as plot 3. Excavation in this plot has so far uncovered a well made cobble surface with well preserved fragments of wooden fences to either side. These were made of upright posts with twisted wooden withies wound between them.

 Work in the coming weeks will focus on these plots and uncovering any earlier buried phases yet undiscovered.


Open Day, Friday 24th August, 12.30pm-3.30pm

Posted 16th August 2018

Our excavations at India Buildings, Cowgate, continue to progress and unearth more features and artefacts relating to the Medieval and Post-Medieval history of Edinburgh. Given the significance of the site and its interest to local residents and visitors to Edinburgh, we are delighted to be holding another open day to share what we have found so far.

The open day will take place on Friday 24th August with the site open to the public from 12.30 pm to 3.30 pm. The excavation team will be working on site during the afternoon, conducting hand excavation and recording as normal, and will be available to answer general questions and explain what they are doing. During the Open Day, our site director Nick Johnstone will provide a more detailed summary of the excavations with guided tours every half hour.

Site open from 12.30pm to 3.30pm
Guided Tours will run at 1pm, 1.30pm, 2pm, 2.30pm and 3pm

We will have a selection of finds available to view and one of our archaeologists will be on hand to answer questions relating to the artefacts on display.

Given the nature of the site, you are advised to wear suitable, sturdy footwear and be prepared for muddy, uneven ground conditions. Please note that the number of visitors onsite will be limited to twenty at any one time.

Do join us to take a peek at hidden traces of Edinburgh's past.

Working shot

Wells, Walls and Wood

Posted 10th August 2018

Work is progressing apace onsite! With the removal of the 19th century remains, an earlier set of structures became apparent. These reflected site developments from the late 16th century to the end of the 18th century.

After removal of the cluster of 19th century workshops fronting Alisons Close in the middle of the site we uncovered two small cobble yards enclosed by narrow walls (below, left).  These were likely small enclosed sheds,  stables or coachyards. These were built over large deposits of made ground used to level the ground surface from a natural hill side to a flat terrace. To the west of these was a cobble lane likely contemporary with these yards (below, centreand right). this lane included three separate phases of surfaces. the last of these was a cambered road, with a cobble drain at its side. Below this were two earlier phases of flat cobbles. These were likely both earlier editions of this same road/alleyway. These earlier surfaces both slightly sloped downwards from the north to the south.

 Montage 1

Following the removal of parts of the tenement structure on the Cowgate frontage, a significant wooden platform was uncovered below the spiral/ turnpike stairwell to the south of the building. This was composed of flat wooden planks over a network of wooden posts set into the deposits beneath (below). These wooden foundations were used to consolidate the ground surface which was was mostly composed of wet silty clay. More of these wooden posts were uncovered below the outer tenement walls. These were found all the way around the building perimeter.


 Below the tenement we also uncovered more of the remains of the structure which pre-dated it (mentioned in the previous update). this included a large rectangular building or yard constructed from well-made walls of pink sandstone blocks, and clay bonding. Set within the walls of this building was a large opening edged by huge worked stone blocks (below, left). In the northern wall of the structure was a rectangular void, running through the wall and ending in an opening to the north side. this was originally through to be a fireplace/flue, but was found to be an external feature, more likely to relate to a drain or soak-away (below, right). Following the recording of these remains, they were removed and the next phase was uncovered.


Our next discovery was two rectangular land plots bounded by crudely made rubble walls. These plots were medieval garden plots which are known to have lined the slopes to either side of the medieval town of Edinburgh. At this time the town was mainly just the houses and buildings lining the hight street (below, left and centre). Both of these plots contained garden soils rich in ceramic fragments and animal  bone, and each also had a stone lined well (below,  right).


working shot

Beneath the initial boundary walls uncovered,  a second earlier wall boundary was discovered at a deeper level, showing a use of this area over a significant period of time. This earlier wall was built on a steeper slope, more closely resembling the natural slope of the landscape. Ongoing investigations of these plots have also uncovered evidence of an earlier ditch cut by one of these wells. 

At present the archaeological investigations have removed at least 5m of man made deposits (right) spanning from the medieval period through to the 20th century. As yet natural subsoil has still not been reached in the mid section of site and investigation is still ongoing in this area. Watch this space for more updates over the coming weeks!

Exploring the Tenements of the Past

Posted 18th July 2018

later_tenementWith the excavation of all the archaeological features at the north end of site completed, our excavation work has moved to the western side of site. Along the frontage of the Cowgate we uncovered a tenement building, known from historic maps and possibly dating to the 17th or 18th century, comprising a large rectangular set of outer walls (right). Beneath the Cowgate frontage this was built over a row of wooden pilings driven into wet, boggy ground below. Inside we found partition walls of red brick and a layer of tar. This likely related to a known 1920 remodelling of the tenement.

Below this remodelling was a layer of earlier rubble. Within this rubble was a significant amount of 18th and 19th century material. This included an unusual large deposit of marbles. These were likely bottle stoppers, and may have come from one of the beer, wine and spirit merchants which are known to have occupied ground level shops below the domestic tenement in the 19th century.

Other structural features of the tenement included large stone pads which were likely the remains of large central columns which would have held the several story building together. To rear of the tenement were the remains of a spiral stairwell which would have led out to the narrow alleys behind the building.

Contemporary with this tenement was a series of three rooms within a large rectangular building which ran along the west side of Alisons Close. These rooms were similar in construction to the tailors workshop located at the north of site. Likewise they produced a diverse range of 19th century items such as ceramics, glass, coins, and clay pipes. Among these were interesting finds of a broken toys including a metal wheel from a toy wagon, and a porcelain painted doll’s head. There were also two slightly more unusual finds: a bullet shell from a large calibre late 19th century hunting rifle (below, right); and a Conder halfpenny token (below, left and centre) depicting on the obverse a filtering stone with the legend "for purifying water" and the date 1796, and on the reverse a bunch of grapes within a shield, with thistles to either side. To the rear of these buildings was an open cobble yard composed of two similar surfaces separated by a small step.


Below these structures a number of earlier remains have also started to be uncovered. Beneath the tenement a second large structure was uncovered. This may be the remains of a tenement building pre-dating the later one. This was represented by a large stone wall with two alcoves. A second wall running along the site frontage may also have been part of this structure. To the rear of this building was the remains of a narrow cobble close (below, left) which lay over a huge stone culvert. The culvert (below, right), although narrow was almost a meter deep, and covered over with large, flat, stone slabs. To the far side of this close, the remains of the wooden floor were also uncovered. This had survived remarkably well, having been directly built over by the later tenement.


Below the 19th century cobble yard, the remains of a cambered cobble road, and a second cobble surface have also just recently been uncovered. These are related to a further series of walls which it is hoped with work in the coming week will resolve into a series of earlier structures. Watch this space!

Open Day, Saturday 30th June, 11am-4pm

Posted 28th June 2018

On Saturday 30th June we will be holding the first of two open days at the site. Please feel free to come along to see the archaeological remains and excavations. A team of our archaeologists including site director Nick Johnstone will be on hand to answer questions and give an insight into the archaeology uncovered so far. We will also have a selection of finds from the excavations on show. The site will be open to the public from 11am till 4pm, access is via Cowgate.

NB The ground is uneven underfoot so we advise that you wear suitable footwear.

Making Progress

Posted 27th June 2018

The area of the site that we were working on when we last posted (below) was fully excavated and recorded by the first week in June. Remains of Alisons Close were uncovered along with evidence from the buildings and rooms that originally lined the close. The surviving remains revealed a sequence of activity from 16th to 19th centuries with features such as beam slots, culverts, drains, pits, cobbles, flagstones and a stone-lined well (below) encountered. A large and varied assemblage of finds was also recovered with pottery, clay pipes, bone, coins and metal objects being uncovered.

Stone-lined well from above Site shot from Go Pro

After a couple of slow weeks on site where we were not able to continue with any excavation, things are progressing now with a large area along the western side of the site having been stripped of its overburden. This machine excavation will continue this week and we hope to uncover an area from the Cowgate frontage all the way to the back of the site. Work is ongoing but we have already exposed a range of large structural walls, smaller internal walls, cobble surfaces and stone culverts. Hand excavation is now being undertaken in and around these structures and over the coming week we will see these fully recorded. At present the buildings uncovered date from 19th to 17th century.

Uncovering 19th Century Trades

Posted 29th May 2018

During the first week of our excavations at India Buildings, the surface of the site was stripped of the rubble surface and a series of structural remains were uncovered. These included the walls of a close which runs north-south across site, identified from historic maps as Alisons Close. To the east side of this close were the remains of a cobbled surface and a complex drainage feature composed of ceramic tiles set within stone culverts (below, left).

Our archaeologists hard at work, and a selection of mid 19th century ceramic figurines Site week one

To the west of the close we identified the remains of two small rooms. These included the remains of a wooden floor composed of degraded wooden beams set into a cinder deposit. The contents of these rooms produced an interesting assemblage of mid 19th century material. For the most part, this was composed of discarded rubbish: broken ceramics, glass, clay pipes, marbles, trinkets and coins.  Among the common Victorian currency was a French coin dating to 1855, showing Napoleon III. Also amid this assemblage was an interesting group of dressmaking materials including small copper pins, thimbles, buttons, clothes fasteners and three tokens advertising a clothes and hat shop named  'Middlemass’ on South Bridge Street. Given the dense concentration of this material, it is possible that these buildings may have functioned as workshops for the advertised shop. Initial research indicates that a company called James Middlemass and Co. (later J & A Middlemass) was established in 1848, with their shop located nearby on South Bridge. James Middlemas and his brother Andrew were wholesale and retail clothiers, robemakers, shirtmakers and outfitters.  

Left: thimbles, pins and tokens discovered at the India Buildings site Right: an advert for James Middlemass & Co., dating to 1876-1877 © National Library of Scotland / CC BYmiddlemass artefacts and ad

This week our work will concentrate on uncovering any earlier remains located below this first horizon of structures. We'll share more here in due course!

Work Begins!

Posted 17th May 2018

AOC has just begun an exciting excavation at the gap site lying behind India Buildings, ahead of a programme of redevelopment. The site lies directly off the Cowgate within the heart of Medieval Edinburgh and provides an amazing opportunity for unearthing information about the origins of Edinburgh’s historic Old Town. The site lies outwith the 14th/15th century King’s Wall and inside the early 16th century Flodden Wall, giving it an important position within the early development of Edinburgh. Recent excavations further east along the Cowgate and the Canongate have found a wealth of information relating to the people and activities that took place from the early historic period of the capital, through the medieval period and into the 18th and 19th centuries. This includes evidence of almost every aspect of human life: remains of domestic dwellings; everyday artefacts such as pottery and midden material giving insights into how and where people lived; and traces of small scale industrial buildings where people worked such as leather workshops, tanneries, cooperages and horn working.

At India Buildings we are not sure as yet what we will find but trenching undertaken last year hinted at metres of archaeological deposits surviving below the 19th and 20th century buildings that once stood on site. It is hoped that, as the excavations progress, we will uncover a wealth of new material to record and assess that will add to our knowledge of medieval Edinburgh and the origins of the Old Town.

Initial works were undertaken earlier this month along the site frontage to allow the insertion of shoring to facilitate the excavation. These works revealed a complex pattern of Cowgate frontage walls dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, when they would have appeared much as they do in the image (below left).

We will look to post new information on a weekly basis as the work onsite proceeds and during the works there will be an opportunity to visit site to the see the excavations first hand at an ‘Open Day’. Details of the ‘Open Day’ will be advertised here once the dates are finalised.

Images: Left: General view from Cowgatehead looking East © HES (Francis M. Chrystal) Right: AOC's archaeologists onsite

historical photo

Archaeologists onsite