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St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh.          Source: karenm9071 / Adobe Stock.

Edinburgh’s First Inhabitants Revealed in 3D Digital Reconstructions

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Two of 111 skeletons recovered from burial sites within a Scottish cathedral are being brought back to life with 3D reconstructions.

A new science project is reconstructing faces from some of 111 skeletons unearthed beneath St. Giles' Cathedral on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the city council's archaeologists think they might be among the city's first inhabitants dating back to the 12th century.

According to a report in The Scotsman, 3D digital reconstructions have brought to life the face of a 900 year-old middle-aged man who died in his mid-40s, “with a missing jaw”, and a 500 year-old similarly aged high-ranking woman who had suffered from leprosy. Due to the man’s missing mandible the imaging experts gave him a beard to cover-up the missing feature, and the woman’s disease partly blinded her in the right eye which is also accounted for and featured on the reconstruction.​

From Fort To City

Anyone who has been to Edinburgh will agree that every building and twisting street is like a backdrop in a Harry Potter type fantasy movie, but beneath this Renaissance wonderland, in the 7th century only a fort was located on ‘Castle Rock’. Edinburgh is so called because the word ‘burgh’ is an old Scot's word for fort, and it wasn’t the best defended one as it was captured by southern forces in the 7th century and not re-captured until the 10th century. By the late 11th century King Malcolm III had erected a castle on Castle Rock and by the early 12th century the town that had grown around it had become Edinburgh.

In the 1120s King David I of Scotland founded Holyrood Abbey and St. Giles' Cathedral to serve the newly-declared royal burgh of Edinburgh, and it became the burial ground for the entire parish. Lasting almost 450 years, its interior burials hold the remains of the elite classes and the exterior of the church contains the bulk of the population; the poor folk.

A painting of St. Giles Cathedral with prominent figures in the front. By Sir David Wilkie. (Public Domain)

A painting of St. Giles Cathedral with prominent figures in the front. By Sir David Wilkie. (Public Domain)

Covering A Missing Mandible

The remains of the man were discovered beneath St. Giles' Cathedral in the 1980s and over the preceding 12 years 111 bodies were discovered by archaeologists dating between the 12th and 16th century. A joint project between the City of Edinburgh Council and the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at Dundee University, according to council archaeologist John Lawson, aims to put human faces on a lot of the human remains we have in our collections dating from when Edinburgh became a royal burgh at the beginning of the 12th century.

An article in the Daily Mail features forensic artist, Lucrezia Rodella, who helped model the 12th century's man's face, said the “missing lower jaw was challenging” and in order to hide his jaw she decided to add a beard. The middle-aged female dating to mid 15th / mid 16th century was recreated in part by Karen Fleming, a MSc Forensic Art and Facial Identification student at the University of Dundee, who said her subject’s leprosy made for “interesting research” leading her to suspect that the lesions under the right eye may have impaired her sight.

The human skull, with the mandible shown in purple at the bottom. (Pngbot / Public Domain)

The human skull, with the mandible shown in purple at the bottom. (Pngbot / Public Domain)

Rebuilding The Past

Last August I wrote an Ancient Origins news piece about another ancient head and face reconstruction project in which Karen Fleming was involved, this time; a 3D wax model of a rare Celtic female druid. The toothless old woman named ‘Hilda' is believed to have lived on the west coast Scottish island of Stornoway and a report on the University of Dundee website explains she was toothless before she died. However, considering a female's life expectancy at this time was roughly 31, this indicated that she had come from a privileged background, and Fleming captured her age nearly perfectly in her reconstructed face and head.

The wax model of 60 year-old “Druid of the Hebrides” produced by Karen Flemming. ( University of Dundee )

The wax model of 60 year-old “Druid of the Hebrides” produced by Karen Flemming. ( University of Dundee )

What I find fascinating about the work of Karen Fleming is that she doesn’t have the luxury of art or photographs with which to guide her recreations, and one can sense, in every scar and wrinkle, that she holds both academic knowledge and a deep understanding of how ancestral Scots lived. However, in this niche world of bringing the past back to life, perhaps the most audacious reconstruction where archaeologists not only lacked visual guidance, but didn’t even have a skull, was achieved by a team of BBC historians who digitally-reconstructed the face of Scotland’s famous Robert the Bruce almost 700 years after his death.

Top image: St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh.          Source: karenm9071 / Adobe Stock.

By Ashley Cowie



Gary Moran's picture

Does that matter?

Aleksa Vučković's picture

If we are to judge by the latest global trends, the first inhabitants of Edinburgh were most likely jet-black Africans.

Gary Moran's picture

Ok, just talk about the reconstructions, but no pictures?

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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