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Edinburgh, Grassmarket

Bomb Crater (20th Century), Cobbled Road (Period Unassigned)(Possible), Culvert(S) (Period Unassigned), Midden (Period Unassigned), Pit(S) (Medieval), Pit(S) (Period Unassigned), Structure(S) (Period Unassigned), Wall(S) (Period Unassigned), Animal Remains(S) (Bone), Horseshoe(S), Unidentified Pottery(S)

Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Edinburgh, City Of
  • Parish Edinburgh (Edinburgh, City Of)
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District City Of Edinburgh
  • Former County Midlothian


Watching Brief (20 March 2007 - July 2007)

NT 2539 7336 A watching brief was conducted between March and July 2007 during the excavation of a service trench for water mains replacement along the Grassmarket and surrounding streets (Cowgatehead, Candlemaker Row, West Port, King's Stables Road, and King's Stables Lane). The work demonstrated evidence of an extensive history of construction and ground disturbance, as might be expected in the heart of

medieval Edinburgh. Despite the presence of numerous services it revealed a number of culvert drains, possible paved/cobbled surfaces, midden remains and undocumented structures. Medieval and later finds included pottery and animal bone. The best preserved and most extensive features were found at the

eastern end of King's Stables Road. Archaeological deposits were shown to have been severely compromised by the large number of services previously introduced in the area.

Archive deposited with CECAS, RCAHMS.

Funder: Scottish Water.

Watching Brief (19 September 2007 - November 2008)

NT 2540 7335 A programme of works to refresh the Grassmarket and its approaches was monitored from 19

September 2007–November 2008. Substantial excavations took place during this work with open trenches of up to 5 x 3 x 3m and 25 x 8 x 1.5m. Deposits of archaeological significance were consistently encountered at depths of up to 2.3m below the modern ground surface.

A basic stratigraphic sequence, consisting of a series of old ground surfaces, typically cobbled and with associated occupational deposits, lying over an extensive, homogeneous colluvial deposit, was found across most of the site. The colluvial deposit reflected the downwash of material from the slopes below Castle Rock and the upper High Street. Beneath the lowest deposit of hillwash lay the natural subsoil into which the prehistoric and Dark Age features were cut.

Before this programme of works the Grassmarket was assumed to have been unoccupied in prehistoric and early medieval times, with little evidence for occupation prior to 1477, when the area was granted a weekly market by James III.

A summary of key findings is presented below:

Prehistoric deposits – Two pits were exposed c6m apart in the excavation of an open cut pipe trench located along the S edge of the existing road on the N side of the Grassmarket. The pits were both sealed by a layer of colluvium and lay c1.8m below the modern ground surface. Radiocarbon analysis of material from the pits returned calibrated dates of 2200–1950 BC with a 95.4% probability (SUERC-19840) and 1500–1380 BC to 95.4% probability (Beta-242133). These features are considered indicative of sporadic use of this lowlying area in the Middle Bronze Age.

Dark Age features – Four negative features were identified as dating to the period of the Anglian occupation of

Edinburgh. Two pits, c4.4m apart, were located towards the W end of the Grassmarket. Further upslope, approximately 68m to the E, a further pit was identified; c6m to the N of this a shallow linear feature was also exposed. Three of the four features returned calibrated radiocarbon dates of between AD 590 and AD 810; the final feature returned a wider date range of AD 690–AD 900 and AD 920–AD 950 (95% probability [Beta-242134]).

Stone deposits related to structural collapse were also exposed during the excavations towards the E end of the Grassmarket, together with a cobbled surface at the base of an apparent cess pit. The stratigraphic position of these features identified them as pre-dating the earliest medieval cobbled surface (not later than AD 1543). At the time of writing samples are awaiting radiocarbon analyses to confirm whether the organic material from related deposits is also Anglian in date. These findings have major significance for our understanding of the development of pre-burghal Edinburgh and may be indicative of more extensive Dark Age occupation in the area than was previously thought to exist.

Medieval deposits and structures – A record of street repairs to the Grassmarket dates to AD 1543. The lowest

cobbled surface exposed during the excavations, up to 2m below the modern ground surface, showed signs of repair; fragments of White Gritty pottery and horseshoes dating to the 11th–14th century AD were recovered from overlying deposits. In West Bow at the NE end of the Grassmarket a number of roughly coursed walls, bonded together with a clean mid brown clay, were exposed. These are most likely to represent medieval and early post-medieval street frontages. A short section of wall abutted by the medieval ground surface was

exposed immediately to the E of the probable location of the West Port and may represent an adjoining structure.

The Flodden Wall – The heavily truncated remains of a 1.8m wide wall were encountered at the W end of the

Grassmarket and were in line with the upstanding sections of the Flodden Wall along Grannys Green Steps and the Vennel. The wall was constructed from large sub-angular blocks of a hard igneous stone bonded together with a friable lime mortar; there was little obvious sign of deliberate coursing. The wall continued down beyond the limit of excavation, with a 4 x 1.8 x 0.4m section being exposed.

Corn Exchange buildings – A sandstone structure bonded together with lime mortar was exposed at the E end of the Grassmarket and may relate to the 18th-century covered platform that served as the first Corn Exchange. The surrounding deposits were heavily truncated by modern activity. Sandstone pads and piles representing the foundations of the 19th-century three-storey Corn Exchange building were encountered at the W end of the Grassmarket. These foundation pads were typically 1 x 1 x 0.5m, though the corner foundations were more substantial at up to 1 x 1 x 1.8m. These foundations lay beneath the columns of the arcaded edifice. The structure was demolished by the third quarter of the 19th century, having been replaced by a new Corn Exchange on the S side of the Grassmarket in 1849.

Drainage system – An elaborate system of stone-built culverts was encountered throughout the Grassmarket with two main E/W arterial culverts fed by numerous smaller N/S drains. All the culverts encountered were inactive. Finds recovered from in the culverts dated to the late 18th and 19th centuries. Cobbles representing the 19th-century ground surface were found to abut one of the culverts, suggesting that the lintel stones of these drains lay at the level of the contemporary ground surface.

WW1 bomb crater – A crater greater than or equal to 8m in diameter and up to 1.7m in depth was found in the middle of the Grassmarket, outside the White Hart Inn. This crater is the result of the high explosive bomb dropped on the night of 2 April 1916 by the German navy Zeppelin L-14. Four people were injured, one of whom later died from wounds sustained in the attack.

Most of the deeper excavations were in the central E/W corridor of the Grassmarket, with the depth of excavation around the edges of the area seldom exceeding 1m. The depth of deposits suggests that more deposits and features of archaeological significance are likely to be found if any further work takes place on the southern side of the Grassmarket, below the existing road and in the natural base of the valley.

Archive and Report: RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: City of Edinburgh Council and RJ Mcleod Ltd

James McMeekin (Headland Archaeology Ltd), 2008


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