St Giles Cathedral in Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh was founded in 1124 and became a focal point of the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century. During this turbulent period Scotland cut ties with the Papacy to establish its own national church (the ‘Kirk’ in Scots language), which was Presbyterian in outlook. Unlike the Reformation in England, where King Henry VIII appointed himself supreme head of the church, the Kirk had no head of faith.
Within the walls of this imposing building and the surrounding land, hundreds of residents have been buried over the centuries. During excavations undertaken in the 1980s, five graveyards were discovered, each covering around 100 years, with some of the remains dating back to the 12th century. This was from a time when the cathedral itself was much larger than the one that sits on the site today. Human remains unearthed during the refurbishment of the cathedral have been stored in archives at Edinburgh City Council since these excavations. These remains are now being revisited by experts at the council who are keen to learn more from them, as well as putting faces to what are believed to be some of Edinburgh’s earliest inhabitants.
During this particular dig over 117 bodies were discovered, some better preserved than others. The first job for a forensic artist is to examine the skull to determine whether it can be accurately reconstructed, digitally or as a 3D object. Experts have already determined the sex and approximate age of the person, along with any obvious traces of disease or trauma. Sadly due to varying factors many skulls of this age are damaged to such an extent that they are unable to be repaired to allow an accurate facial reconstruction. However, when a skull is almost intact, and the pieces of bone are available, it is not dissimilar to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Using something as basic as masking tape to hold together the fragments of bone prevents further damage to what are already very fragile objects. Being able to hold and physically examine the remains always feels like a huge privilege along with gaining some insight into the lives of our common ancestors. It must also be noted that the remains are always treated with the greatest respect and we must not fail to remember that they were ordinary human beings like ourselves at one time.
After the excavation of the remains buried at St Giles every detail was carefully documented before being grouped into different burial phases based on the estimated century of death. The initial skulls that I worked on were from the 12th – 14th centuries but due to the age condition was poor which meant the main challenge was to carefully attach the pieces of bone back together - a time-consuming process.
Once I have a skull that is near or intact, I will take photographs that are then uploaded to my computer to begin the reconstruction process. Markers are measured based on the sex and age of the individual to represent the tissue depth. These markers are added at various points of the skull so I can get an idea of the face shape. A forensic artist can observe the skull’s features and indicate how big the nose was, what kind of shape it was, the symmetry or asymmetry of the face and so on. Once I have an idea of the face shape I use a database of facial images that I am constantly adding to, this is used to select features that can be altered to fit the skull. Hair and eye colour cannot be predicted unless the remains have been DNA-tested so we consider what might have been common colouring of people from that time period.
Many of the remains had different diseases and conditions, such as spinal disease, tuberculosis and metabolic disease, as well as dental issues such as abscesses which are visible on the skull.
One particular set of remains that were of interest to me were of a female who presented signs of leprosy. She was believed to be between the ages of 35 and 40 and would likely have contracted the disease in adulthood. Her death would have occurred between the mid 15th and 16th centuries. The skull showed signs of lesions under the right eye that would likely have led to sight loss in this eye. It is also important to note the fact that this lady was buried within St Giles next to the alter of St Anne indicating she had high status, possibly within the Tailors Guild.
When reconstructing a skull with obvious signs of disease or trauma it can make for very interesting research but unfortunately it is difficult to know much about the lives of these people, although locations of burials can give us an idea of a person’s class or importance in society. There is a huge deal more to learn from these particular burials in Edinburgh and I am hopeful this will continue to be an ongoing project giving us more of an insight into how our ancestors lived.
Karen Fleming is a Forensic Artist based in Scotland. She mainly works with museums and archaeologists creating facial reconstructions in both 2D and 3D from ancient skulls. Most notably she has worked on medieval skulls excavated during renovation works at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh in collaboration with The City Council. Karen can be contacted through her website: https://www.karenflemingforensicartist.com