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Date 14 June 2011 - 30 June 2011

Event ID 963497

Category Recording

Type Excavation


NT 25990 73360 A programme of archaeological investigation was undertaken in the Old College Quadrangle for the University of Edinburgh in 2010 (DES 2010, 67–69). This work included a large scale excavation that revealed the vestigial remains of the historic Kirk o’ Fields, the associated cemetery and the buildings of the early University of Edinburgh. Excavation within the cellar area of the library building along the N side of the existing quad, constructed in 1642–6, revealed a small quantity of brightly coloured compounds and fragments of glass apparatus. Subsequent assessment of the materials showed them to be highly toxic and the glass to be in the nature of chemistry apparatus. Health and Safety concerns dictated this area remain undisturbed.

Subsequent assessment of the recovered materials during the post-excavation process identified a reference which indicated the chemistry apparatus of renowned scholar of the Scottish Enlightenment, the chemist Professor Joseph Black, was stored in the basement of the library building after his death in 1799 (and perhaps considerably earlier, from c1780). Assessment of the glass and ceramic artefacts by Dr Robert Anderson indicated these objects to be of outstanding significance in the history and development of early chemistry. This discovery was deemed especially important as 2011 is the International Year of Chemistry. It was therefore agreed by the University of Edinburgh to reopen the trench in this area to recover a more representative sample and this work was undertaken 14–30 June 2011.

Removal of the demolition rubble from within the SW angle of the cellar of the 1642 building, an area of 5 x 2.5m, revealed a spread of artefacts of exceptional variety and significance. These artefacts all lay directly atop the beaten floor surface of the building, and seemed to represent a combination of debris accumulated during the building’s use and materials abandoned when the range was ultimately demolished in 1820.

A wide variety of artefacts was recovered and recorded. The artefacts were predominantly of glass and ceramic with a notable number of metal objects; also apparent were concentrations of chemical compounds of a variety of colours. Many of the ceramic vessels also retained or contained apparent chemical residues. A large number of glass rods were recovered, some solid and some evidently thermometer sections, as well as fragments of what appear to be test tubes. Of particular note was a quantity of small ceramic crucibles.

Apparently immediately predating the deposition of the chemistry materials was the find of some 40 pieces of founders type, used in the printing process. Documentary sources indicate that from 1754 the college’s Press was situated in this chamber, referred to by one source as ‘the printing house immediately under the [Low Library]’ – run by the College Printer, Hamilton and Balfour. An earth-fast setting of four post-pipes located within the excavation area may relate to the former position of a press.

A deeper sondage at one point identified an apparent wall trench set at the same alignment as some of the 16th-century and earlier structures identified within the 2010 excavations. The excavation was necessarily undertaken under a strict Health and Safety regime.

Archive: RCAHMS

Funder: University of Edinburgh

Ross Cameron and Tom Addyman – Addyman Archaeology/Simpson and Brown Architects 2011 OASIS ID - addymana1-102603

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