Archaeologist to discuss Marischal College excavations

5 November 2013

The results of a recent study of the bones of seven men thought to be Fransican friars discovered during archaeological digs during the refurbishment of Marischal College are to be discussed during a lunchtime talk tomorrow [05 November].

During the illustrated talk in the Maritime Museum, archaeologist Alison Cameron of Cameron Archaeology will discuss the various well-preserved remains uncovered during the 2009 dig, including evidence of the medieval Fransiscan (Greyfriars) friary buildings, among them the friary church demolished in the early 20th century to allow for the construction of the new Marischal College frontage.

Seven human skeletons were excavated from the cloister area adjacent to the medieval church; these are probably the mortal remains of some of the friars themselves. Results of recent study of the bones by Paul Duffy, Brandanii Archaeology will be presented at this illustrated talk in the Maritime Museum. The medieval remains of at least five other people were also found during the excavations undertaken by Aberdeen City Council archaeologists in advance of the creation of the council's new headquarters.

Following the formation of Marischal College in the late 16th century, the buildings of the friary were used for college accommodation and then further buildings were constructed, several of which were found during this building work. The talk, which takes place from 12.30pm to 1pm, will also include discussion of some of the finds uncovered during this extensive archaeological work.

The site is a very important historic location, not only because of the presence of Marischal College, which has stood there since the 16th century, but also because one of Aberdeen's major religious houses, the Franciscan Friary, occupied the same site from the late 15th century onwards.

Walls and cobbled surfaces associated with the medieval friary have been uncovered - including parts of the early 16th century friary complex. Greyfriars Church itself survived until the early 20th century.

Walls of 17th-19th century university structures also emerged and were recorded. Numerous objects have been found during the dig, including two complete pottery vessels dating from the 15th or 16th century.

The remains of the seven adult males were excavated at the site in spring 2009. They had been buried with their heads to the south-west, outside the north wall of the medieval Greyfriars Church. The burials probably date to the 15th century, as the graves were sealed by the laying of a cobbled surface above them.

The Franciscan Friars (known as Greyfriars because of the colour of their clothing) came to Aberdeen in the 1460s and it is likely that these burials took place not long after this date.

The graves had been cut deeply into the natural geology. The hands of the men were clasped as if in prayer and may have been bound into that posture with cloth, which has since decayed in the soil. These men were probably Franciscan friars and would have been buried in their habits, which were probably made from coarse wool cloth.

The skeletons will be cleaned and sent to Glasgow University, where human bone specialist Paul Duffy studied them to determine the age and stature of the men, as well as diseases and ailments from which they suffered. Paul previously studied the bones of the 1,000 skeletons found during the St Nicholas Church dig.

The Marischal College skeletons are male and that at least two of the men were elderly when they died. One had very worn teeth with many gaps where teeth had been lost prior to death, suggesting a lifetime of chewing and grinding food. He also had a very painful arthritic spine.

Fish bones found in the abdomen area of another of the skeletons revealed that the man had eaten fish not long before he died.

The remains of several other individuals were found disarticulated in the graves. At least five skulls were found suggesting that the remains of at least 12 individuals lay in the site.

Medieval gravediggers often found previous burials whilst digging graves and the bones of these individuals were backfilled in the grave with the body of the recently deceased.

The Archaeology of Marischal College talk will be followed by on Wednesday, 20 November, with the History of Marischal College, by historian Chris Croly.

Both talks are broadly related to the Aberdeen Welcomes Edward and Alexandra, on now in the Maritime Museum, which features the 1906 extension to Marischal College.

Those attending the lunchtime talks can pick up a voucher that gives them 10% off in the Maritime Museum café on the day of the talk.