Important archaeological remains discovered on Edinburgh Trams project

Specialists from Guard Archaeology investigating the route of the Edinburgh Tram extension to Newhaven.

Construction teams that are extending Edinburgh Trams to Newhaven have begun digging again and have shown off some of the artefacts they have uncovered.

Many have been discovered around the Constitution Street area and date back as far as the 17th century. There are also possible relics of Leith’s 16th and 17th century town defences, as well as evidence that might suggest reclamation of Leith foreshore took place earlier than first thought.

Morrison Utility Services, the ‘swept path contractor’ for the Trams to Newhaven project, has contracted archaeologists from Guard Technology to examine the relics. These include:

  • Whale bones: Found on Constitution Street to the north of its junction with Baltic Street, a matching radius and ulna (part of the fin) of a large adult male sperm whale. The bones have yet to be carbon dated (this has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic), which will help explain how they ended up under the pavement in Leith.
    Whalebones and a small cannonball discovered during an archaeological dig on the route of the Edinburgh Tram extension to Newhaven.
    Amongst possible theories are that they were brought back in the 19th or 20th century as a memento as part of Leith’s historic whaling industry, that they came from the remains of a whale beached locally and were subsequently dumped there or that they were part of medieval deposits left there during the reclamation of the site in the 17th to 19th centuries, perhaps dating back to the medieval period.
  • Cannonball: A small iron cannonball found in Constitution Street thought to date back to the 17th century – of a type used around the time of the Civil War when Constitution Street and Leith was refortified.
    Small cannonball found under Constitution Street.
  • Historic drainage: Excavations between Edinburgh’s Bernard Street and Tower Street have revealed important evidence relating to the reclamation of the area, including a large system of 19th century interlinked brick and stone box-drains, 18th century walls and a possible slipway. Evidence of 17th century clay pipes also indicates that the reclamation of the area could have occurred earlier than first thought.
  • Town defences: Prior to lockdown the heavily truncated remains of a large stone wall were discovered running east to west under the junction of Bernard Street and Constitution Street. This may be part of the seawall for the 16th and 17th century town fortifications – the team will be investigating this when the project restarts.
Cllr Adam McVey.

Council Leader Adam McVey commented: “Leith has a fantastically rich heritage, but these discoveries continue to expose new aspects of its fascinating, varied history.

“I’m pleased that the team will now be able to resume their work as part of the project, which is vital to conserving the area’s past, and look forward to finding out even more as they progress.”

City Archaeologist John Lawson said: “Our work to excavate the area as part of preparatory work for the Trams to Newhaven project has offered really interesting glimpses into the area’s history, over the past three to four hundred years, and we’re endeavouring to conserve that.

John Lawson, City Archaeologist.

“Discoveries like the whale bones have been particularly fascinating and exciting. These bones provide a rare glimpse into, and also a physical link with, Leith’s whaling past, one of its lesser known maritime industries and one which in the 20th century reached as far as the Antarctic.

“Given the circumstances of how they were found it is possible that they may date back to the medieval period, and if so, would be a rare and exciting archaeological discovery in Edinburgh.”

Work on Constitution Street began late last year but stopped in March during the coronavirus pandemic.

Teams working on the project had already taken down a wall around Constitution Street Graveyard which dated from 1790. The large charnel pit which was discovered may contain the remains of burials recovered when services were laid during the 19th century. Further investigation will now take place.

Edinburgh Trams network with the extension to Newhaven shown in blue.

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