Archaeologists exhume a body from the quadrangle of Robert Gordon College in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Medieval mass grave lay hidden just two feet below a college in Scotland

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A mass grave with 25 bodies from the Medieval era is being excavated “just a couple of feet below” on the grounds of a private college in Aberdeen, Scotland. The bodies, some from the 13 th century, were discovered when workers were digging in the yard, where students and faculty walked daily for many decades since the college was founded in the 18 th century.

Robert Gordon's College is on the site of an abbey that Catholic friars were forced to abandon during the 16 th century Scottish Reformation. A historian says the people buried there were probably elite members of society because they were interred in sacred ground.

“The bones were buried less than two feet underground in the quad area of the site and are now being examined by experts with a view to being reburied,” reports The Scotsman online . “Robert Gordon University, in Aberdeen, ordered the boiler work—but the skeletons were discovered in the grounds of the neighboring private school Robert Gordon College. Contractors installing cables found the first skeleton near Schoolhill main library and called in Aberdeenshire Council archaeologists to carry out further excavations in the area. It is believed the skeletons are of people laid to rest on the site of the former Blackfriars Abbey during the 13th century.”

Robert Gordon's College (Photo by AbedeenBill

Robert Gordon's College (Photo by AbedeenBill / Wikimedia Commons )

Historians believe Alexander II founded the abbey between 1230 and 1249. Religious reformers destroyed it in 1560. The site was granted to George, Earl Marischal in 1587. It became the site of Schoolhill when it opened as a college in 1750.

A local historian, Diane Morgan, said the Protestant Reformation forced Catholics to abandon the abbey, which was then left to go to ruin. Friars from both Blackfriars Abbey and the Greyfriars abbey were exiled from Aberdeen. “This find is very interesting and in the 13th century people could pay money to be buried on sanctified grounds. This could mean the people were privileged,” she said.

The Scottish Reformation, part of the larger Reformation sweeping Europe at the time in rebellion to the Catholic Church's corruption, rallied some of the most powerful sections of Scotland's society to the cause of Protestantism. Major figures in the Scottish Reformation included John Knox and George Wishart, who recruited influential people to the movement, says the Scottish Historic Society website. Through their efforts Protestantism replaced Catholicism as Scotland's primary religion. Centuries before, Catholicism replaced the Celtic and Druidic religions in Scotland and the rest of the British Isles.

Scottish reformer John Knox

Scottish reformer John Knox ( Wikimedia Commons )

The website says the Reformation movement was just as much a political rebellion as a religious one. The nobility rebelled against Mary of Guise, mother of Queen Mary and the regent of Scotland in the late 1550s. The nobility wanted to align more toward Protestant England and move Scotland away from its long-standing relationship with Catholic France.

The ejection of friars from monasteries, abbeys and friaries came about January 1, 1559, when rebels posted The Beggars' Summons on the doors of Catholic religious buildings and threatened violence if clerics didn't leave. The notice was addressed in the name of the “blind, crooked, bed-ridden, widows, orphans and poor of Scotland” and said:

Ye your selfes ar not ignorant (and thocht ye wald be) it is now (thankes to God) knawen to the haill warlde…that the benignitie or almes of all Christian people perteynis to us allanerly; quhilk ye, being hale of bodye, stark, sturdye, and abill to wyrk…hes thire many yeiris…maist falslie stowin fra us…[we] warne yow, in the name of the grit God, be this publyck wryting, affixt on your yettis quhair ye now dwell, that ye remove fourth of our saidis Hospitales, betuix this and the Feist of Witsunday next, sua that we…may enter and tak posessioun of our said patrimony, and eject yow utterlie fourth of the same.

Michael Maitland, facilities manager for Robert Gordon's College, called the mass grave a major find. “Contractors basically were working to install lines and lay cables when they made the discovery,” he told The Scotsman. “They were using a mechanical digger and with the first scrape, about 300 millimeters [11.8 inches] below ground, they found a skeleton. The first one was near the Schoolhill main library and we called the council archaeologists. They went on to find about 25 from around the 13th century, according to the archaeologists. They were saying they consider it to be quite a major discovery that they believe is tied to the old Blackfriars Abbey on the site. I’ve worked here 25 years and I never imagined there was all this just a couple of feet below me. It’s fascinating.”

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