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Archaeology at the Palace of Holyroodhouse reveals a time capsule of Edinburgh's history

Release date: Monday, 3 September 2018

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A medieval shoe, a 300-year-old smoking pipe, a fragment of a 12th-century jug and the skeleton of a horse are just some of the discoveries made by archaeologists at the Palace of Holyroodhouse over the past year.  Most of the finds were uncovered in or around the Abbey Strand buildings in the Canongate, among the earliest surviving structures in Edinburgh, and provide a glimpse into lives of residents over the centuries.

More than 40 trenches were dug for an archaeological survey undertaken as part of the works for Future Programme, the £10 million investment by Royal Collection Trust in the visitor experience at the Palace.  Future Programme projects include the restoration of the Abbey Strand buildings and the creation of a Learning Centre and holiday apartments within them, and a new public garden behind the Abbey Strand inspired by the Palace's lost 17th-century physic garden.

Excavations in the Abbey Strand buildings by the Edinburgh-based firm Kirkdale Archaeology uncovered the earliest evidence of settlement on the site.  Timber posts dating from the 12th century may mark the location of a terrace that led to the then low-lying island on which Holyrood Abbey was built in 1128 or could have formed part of a structure used by the workmen who built the Abbey.

Twelfth-century bones of Highland cattle found in the Abbey Strand gardens provide evidence of trading between Edinburgh and the Highlands and Western Isles.  Other animal bones, a large quantity of oyster shells (probably from nearby Leith) and fragments of wine bottles give an insight into the diets of the courtiers and ambassadors who stayed in the Abbey Strand buildings during the reigns of Mary, Queen of Scots and James VI.

One of the earliest finds is a medieval leather shoe from beneath one of the cellars in the Abbey Strand. Wine and spirit bottles, food debris and fragments of children's games give a glimpse of life for the 25 impoverished families living in cramped tenements during the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Work in the Palace gardens uncovered evidence of the development of the area from the flower gardens and orchards of the 12th-century monastery to the formal gardens of Mary, Queen of Scots' time and the 17th-century physic garden, to which the origins of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh can be traced.

Pottery finds include part of a 12th-century green-glazed jug imported from Europe. A 17th-century clay pipe bears the initials 'T.B.' and the maker's mark of the Edinburgh workshop of Thomas Banks, the son of Scotland's first ever manufacturer of pipes, William Banks. Another carries the initials of a popular pipe-maker of the 1670s, Patrick Crawford, and an 'E', indicating it was made in Edinburgh.

Among the more unusual discoveries is the complete skeleton of a horse, uncovered under the lawn next to the Palace's Forecourt.  This area was close to the site of a medieval graveyard serving the Canongate, but it remains a mystery as to when and why the animal was buried.


Find out more about Future Programme at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.