Printer Friendly

Little, tiny boxes hide big secrets; Seventeen small coffins found by schoolboys on Arthur's Seat remain unexplained 200 years later.

The miniature coffins found buried on Arthur's Seat are one of Scotland's most fascinating and intriguing mysteries.

In June 1836, five young schoolboys hunting for rabbits on the east slopes of Edinburgh's extinct volcano made the grim and astonishing find.

They unearthed 17 tiny coffins, carved out of pine, each containing a little wooden figure.

The coffins had been neatly arranged inside a small opening on the hillside which had been covered over by rocks.

When the boys knocked away the stones they found the coffins arranged in three tiers - two tiers of eight, with one solitary coffin placed on top.

Pieces of slate had been used to divide each layer.

Each coffin, measuring only 95mm in length, contained a small wooden doll, expertly carved with painted black boots and custommade clothes.

Almost 200 years on, debate continues to rage over who buried the mysterious coffins and why.

Only eight of the macabre relics remain.

These have been put on show in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

And George Dalgleish, keeper of Scottish history and archeology at the museum, says the mystery surrounding the coffins - as well as the fantastic solutions people have come up with to solve the riddle - has made them one of their most popular attractions.

George said: "The tiny coffins and the story of their discovery really is fascinating.

"We know these schoolboys found them while rabbiting, and we know that originally there were 17 coffins. Initially, they ended up in the collection of someone who had a private museum but they came to the National Museum of Scotland in 1901 and by that stage, there were only eight coffins left.

"We believe several of the coffins were destroyed by the children who found them, but the fact we know there were originally 17 is important.

"One theory concerning what these coffins were for and who buried them is that they were meant to represent sailors who had been lost at sea.

"Another is that these figures had somehow been used as part of a witchcraft ceremony.

"We do know that Arthur's Seat has always been associated with the supernatural and such like, but witches in Scotland didn't use voodoo dolls, which makes this theory unlikely.

"The most recent theory concerning these coffins, and the one we at the museum suggest may potentially be more likely to be true, concerns two of Edinburgh's most famous murderers - William Burke and William Hare.

"In the late 1820s, these men are known to have carried out 17 murders in Edinburgh.

"They are often referred to as body snatchers, the people who stole cadavers from graves to sell on to be used in anatomy classes both at Edinburgh University and at private classes.

"But Burke and Hare weren't body snatchers - they killed their victims so they could then sell their bodies for use in anatomy classes and when they were caught, it was discovered there had been 17 victims.

"Now we might be putting two and two together and getting four-and-a-half, but it does seem quite a coincidence that around this time these 17 coffins were buried."

George said analysis of the cloth the dolls were dressed in dates the figures and coffins to around 1830.

He said: "We have to ask ourselves what could have led to someone burying 17 miniature coffins on Arthur's Seat at this time.

"This was a time when people believed that a corpse being buried was necessary for resurrection, and that a dissected body would not be able to rise to life at the Last Judgment.

"People were filled with horror and revulsion by the idea of grave robbing and for Burke and Hare to kill people for the purpose of then selling their bodies on for dissection, was just about the worst horror imaginable.

"The trial of Burke and Hare generated a huge amount of public interest, and so it is one theory that someone, somewhere thought their victims deserved a burial and in the absence of any bodies gave then a symbolic burial using these figures.

"It is as good a theory as any and it is just a pity we cannot prove it."

The Arthur's Seat Coffins can be found in the Ways of Death display, on the fourth floor of the National Museum of Scotland, at Chamber Street, Edinburgh.

Crime king's fascination Best-selling crime writer Ian Rankin featured the mystery surrounding the coffins as a central part of his plot in his Inspector Rebus novel The Falls.

Rankin said: "I'm attracted to real-life mysteries with no ending. That got me thinking - what if Rebus got involved in an investigation of this hidden Edinburgh I've always tried to write about?"

CAPTION(S):

MYSTERY Tiny coffins , above, and, right, George Dalgleish, museum's keeper of Scottish History

MACABRE Burke and Hare at work, left, and, above, Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh where coffins were found
COPYRIGHT 2012 Scottish Daily Record & Sunday
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 
Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 11, 2012
Words:813
Previous Article:They came from the skies; Is a string of UFO sightings in the heavens above Scotland evidence that we are a tourist trap for extra-terrestrials?
Next Article:Marvels and mystery in National Museum.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters