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Date 29 March 2010 - 22 October 2010

Event ID 633883

Category Recording

Type Excavation


NT 25990 73360 A desk-based assessment and evaluation was undertaken in relation to proposed resurfacing of the Old College Quadrangle courtyard. The desk-based assessment summarised the history of the site and established the approximate position of any possible surviving archaeological remains. The evaluation was carried out 29–31 March 2010 and targeted areas where remains of previous buildings were to be expected. Nine trenches were opened across the interior courtyard amounting to just under 7% of the development area. The trenches confirmed that the ground level in the courtyard had been substantially lowered and levelled c1832 as part of William Playfair’s completion of the existing quadrangle building. A post-medieval stone-lined drain that was encountered is part of Playfair’s building works. Despite the 19th-century down-cutting of the courtyard area, parts of a pre-existing paved surface and wall footings were identified in the NW corner of the site. A small quantity of disarticulated human bone was recovered from an area of redeposited subsoil in the S-central part of the site. This was probably residual from the medieval graveyard of the church of St Mary’s in the Field that had formerly occupied much of the Quadrangle area.

Subsequent monitoring during the general reduction of the court surface identified numerous archaeological features of varying date and led to a more extensive mitigation exercise. Over 84 days from 29 June to 22 October 2010 the entire court surface was cleaned, with numerous individual sondages and wider excavation areas opened up to target and investigate particular areas, features and deposits. The excavation recorded evidence for the substantial landscaping and down-cutting undertaken by Playfair c1832. A broad band of exposed bedrock was recorded across the SW part of the site, bordered to N and E by undisturbed natural subsoils. Playfair’s landscaping activity had eradicated any remains of the medieval church. However, remnants of its associated cemetery were recovered (some quantity of charnel in redeposited material over much of the central part of the site). Where the historic ground surface sloped down further to the N and E a zone of in situ inhumations survived. Down-cutting had been so extensive that these lay just below the modern courtyard surface; of these a total of 44 were disinterred and at least 15 which lay at a deeper level were left undisturbed. There appears to have been four phases of burial, as indicated by both stratigraphy and notable general alignment changes. All ages from neonate to adult of both sexes were represented, suggesting a general population. One triple burial included an adult male, a female and a juvenile.

At least two probable cases of syphilis were identified at the final phase, suggesting a dating of c1500 or thereafter. Evidence was recovered for the use of shrouds (pins, lace, loops, etc); associated ceramics and a late 15th-century coin confirmed a general medieval date. The cemetery appeared to have been bounded by sections of walling identified along its N and E sides. In the SE sector early clay-bonded footings and apparent robber-trenching may relate to ancillary buildings associated with the medieval collegiate church.

The N side of the cemetery was bounded by a lane, partly terraced into the downward sloping ground and formed of multiple episodes of metalling. This lane was bounded by a further wall on its N side and aligned at a slight angle to the subsequent general axes of buildings established on site by the 17th century. Bounding the lane further to the NW and respecting its alignment were the remains of a substantially built masonry structure of apparent later medieval date. Whether this represented parts of a documented infirmary of the medieval collegiate foundation or Hamilton House, the town residence of the Duke of Chatelherault and dating to the early 1550s, was not determined. To the E there survived parts of a massively built kitchen fireplace (including the springing of its arch and well preserved scorched hearthstones) and a truncated slop-sink in the S wall. The latter had evidently fed in to a stone-lined drain that was recorded along the S exterior wall foot. The SW angle of the structure revealed the base of a projecting stair tower. An entrance at the foot of the turnpike evidently led to lower chambers, possibly cellars.

Hamilton House and other existing buildings were incorporated into the new college foundation, later the University of Edinburgh, established by the city in 1582–3. The church was demolished and a large quarry pit on part of its site probably provided building stone for the new works. Remains of a number of 17th-century college buildings were recorded. A vaulted cellar inserted into Hamilton House probably dates to this time. A Quadrangle was formed to the NW – the Laigh College. The remains of the SE corner of this were revealed within the excavation area, including parts of a court surface formed by setts and part of a masonry stair rising to the main court area, the High College to the S. The High Court was bonded on its E side by a major masonry range erected in 1617 and used variously as a library, museum and Common Hall. Parts of the E, S and all of the W walls of this structure were revealed, the latter retaining the preserved dressed threshold stones of its principal entrance. A large sondage at its SW internal angle revealed the beam settings for a wooden floor. Fallen plasterwork recovered from this area formed a substantial ceiling cornice of 17th-century character.

The 1617 building was bonded on its W side by a sunken courtyard; this was fully excavated as part of a voluntary exercise involving students from Edinburgh University. The court had been terraced into upward sloping ground to the W, cutting into the pre-existing cemetery area and retained by a masonry court wall that was punctuated by a masonry stair. The cobbled court surface was exceptionally well preserved and retained a central drainage gully set at a right angle and drawing to the N.

The footprint of a subsidiary building extending W from the S part of the 1617 library building and closing off the S side of the sunken courtyard was recorded. This structure, of 18th-century date, contained a larger chamber to the W with a fireplace in its W wall and a stair chamber to the E. The wooden stair rose up within the semi-circular walling to the S. A secondary entrance at the NW corner of the main room opened into a small building occupying the SW angle of the sunken court; within this survived well preserved remains of a wooden floor.

The N side of the High Court was bounded by a library range erected in 1642–6. Its S wall was recorded in a number of sondages, which showed that this cut through the pre-existing metalled lane along much of its length. Its SW corner had been built around the SE angle of Hamilton House. Fragments of court paving were recorded along the S side of Hamilton House. The early buildings revealed in the excavations were demolished between c1790, when Robert Adam commenced construction of the existing college buildings, and c1825 when his scheme was continued using a revised design by William Playfair. The lower parts of the early buildings and sunken courtyard were infilled with their own demolition rubble.

The remains of assorted chemical compounds including arsenic and mercury and fragments of glassware were recovered from the W end of the interior of the 1642 library and are considered to represent the contents of an early 19th-century chemistry laboratory. Further remains of later date included the foundations of stairs set at 45° into each of the corners of the Quad. These were part of the initial Playfair scheme and survived until the mid-20th century alongside a fountain base in the W end of the Quad. An extensive network of stone-lined drains related principally to the Playfair period.

Archive: RCAHMS

Funder: The University of Edinburgh

Ross Cameron, Tom Addyman, Tanja Romankiewicz, Cath Richards and Kenneth Macfadyen – Addyman Archaeology/Simpson and Brown Architects

OASIS ID - addymana1-102603

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