What do whale bones, a cannonball, historic drainage and old town defences all have in common? They have all been discovered in the first stages of the Trams to Newhaven project, with the findings of archaeologists released just as the next stage of construction works are set to get underway following the lifting of further restrictions in Scotland.
These artefacts have been discovered around Constitution Street, which is helping to give experts a new insight into the area’s history. Investigations have revealed evidence that suggests the reclamation of parts of Leith’s foreshore – when land was extended into the Forth – happened earlier than first thought.
Included in the relics found are a wide variety of different items, some more understandable than others!
* 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 haven’t yet been carbon dated, which is expected to explain just how they came to be found under the pavement in Leith! Possible theories currently being considered 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 then 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 was found in Constitution Street. It is believed to date back to the 17th century and is of a type used around the time of the Civil War when Constitution Street and Leith was refortified.
* Historic drainage: excavations between 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: 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.
City Archaeologist, John Lawson, commented: “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. 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.”
Archaeologists from GUARD Archaeology Ltd are undertaking this work on behalf of contractors Morrison Utility Services and have also taken down part of a wall surrounding Constitution Street Graveyard (dating back to 1790), ahead of excavating of the historic graveyard thought to be underneath Constitution Street and the South Leith Parish Church wall. Preparatory work to recover any human remains has led the archaeologists to discover what appears to be a large charnel pit which may contain the remains of some burials recovered from the laying of 19th century services in Constitution Street.
With a relaxation of some further restrictions in Scotland, works resumed at existing sites on Lindsay Road, Melrose Drive and Constitution Street from 15th June and the main works on Leith Walk from Elm Row to Crown Place will start from Monday 22nd June. Full social distancing will be put into practice to allow the work to resume with the continued aim that trams will start running to Newhaven from 2023.
* It has also been confirmed that from Monday 22nd June anyone travelling on board the current Edinburgh Trams network must wear a face covering, bringing Scotland in line with the regulations in England.