Aberdeen Art Gallery redevelopment works reveal medieval history

16 February 2016

Nearly 100 medieval skeletons have been found as part of a 'watching brief' by archaeologists during renovations to Aberdeen Art Gallery while it undergoes a £30million transformation to create a world class cultural centre celebrating art and music.

'Inspiring Art and Music' will restore Aberdeen Art Gallery's complex of buildings, creating a stunning new rooftop gallery, modern concert hall, dedicated learning spaces and will allow us to better showcase our Recognised Collection of National Significance.

Aberdeen City Council's deputy leader Marie Boulton said: "This amazing discovery provides the people of Aberdeen with a direct link to their historical, even ancestral past, while serving as a reminder that the £30million redevelopment is building on foundations laid by our forefathers when this city's art gallery was conceived more than 130 years ago."

The project to overhaul the Art Gallery is being funded partially by investment from businesses across the north-east, as well as individuals who want to make their mark on the historic site.

Mrs Boulton: "The fact that people are being given the opportunity to invest directly in Aberdeen's progression towards becoming a cultural capital makes this project all the more special, and gives them a personal stake in one of the greatest regional galleries in the world."

"Those wishing to donate can text AAGM001 to 70970 to give £5."

Christine Rew, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Manager, said: "One of the planning conditions of Aberdeen Art Gallery redevelopment was to have an archaeological watching brief as the renovation works took place. This reflected the importance of the site - the Dominican friary of the Black Friars - being within the mediaeval heart of the city.

"It is known that the friary included a graveyard, and that that a bone had been found just beyond the Art Gallery, when pre-development site investigations took place in 2012 and 2013. Earlier construction work in the 19thand 20thcenturies in the area also found burials.

"The archaeologists from AOC Archaeology have been on-site during the demolitions of the back premises, and within the gallery as excavations were being made for the foundations of the new main staircase.

"Under the back premises, around 40 disarticulated skeletons were found, in three wooden coffins and placed in a brick-built chamber (known as a charnel house). Significant quantities of coffin wood, fixtures, fittings and furniture, and textile were also found. The find suggests that during a previous development of the Gallery (possibly 19thcentury), these bodies were lifted and moved from where the building work was taking place, boxed and put into the brick chamber.

"Within the gallery itself, 52 skeletons were found, as well as coins, coffin fixtures and fittings, coffin wood, textiles, ceramics, stone artefacts, bricks, tiles and quantities of animal bone and shell.

"As discovered and recorded, all the skeletons and other finds have been taken off-site to the archaeology company's store. They are being cleaned and sorted first, and then appropriate tests, including DNA, will be undertaken to determine the approximate date of the finds. A post-research report on the excavations will also be written.

"As a consequence of the finds construction work has been delayed by six weeks however it is not a critical time delay. The contractor has indicated his intention to still complete on time, however we are now reviewing our timelines in case he is unable to. There is also a period of time between completion of construction to enable air handling systems to stabilise, and fit out the exhibitions prior to the planned date for opening in late 2017.

"The Roman Catholic Bishop of Aberdeen has indicated his wish to arrange the reinternment of the body found last year at the corner of the Art Gallery, just outside the gateway to Robert Gordon College's quadrangle. These remains were discovered when the Robert Gordon University engaged SSE to lay a new electric cable. It is expected that he will also wish to arrange a similar burial for the bodies found here."

"We believe that this find contributes considerably to the knowledge we have of the medieval centre of the city, and we will look to using this in telling more of the story of the site when we re-open the Art Gallery, and will also use it in other ways. We will also apply to have the material finds returned to the city once they have been analysed. There is a government process to determine where finds are located."

Martin Cook, AOC project manager, said: "We are hugely excited to be working on such an exciting project which will provide so much information on Medieval Aberdeen.

"Articulated skeletal remains of more than 50 individuals have also been recovered from formal graves. There is clear intercutting of graves, though each individual grave appears to contain a single inhumation.

"Further disarticulated remains including fragments of skull have been recovered from the deposits associated with the formal burials.

"In addition to the skeletal remains a large artefact assemblage has been recovered associated with both the charnel and the formal burials.

"The artefacts comprise metal objects including significant quantities of coins, coffin fixtures and fittings, organic finds including coffin wood and textiles, ceramics, stone artefacts, bricks, tiles and quantities of animal bone and shell."

Bruce Mann, archaeologist for Aberdeenshire Council, who is contracted to work for the City Council on this project, said: "We expected to find some remains underneath the Art Gallery, but the 19thcentury building works actually left more burials intact than we ever imagined. This now presents a fantastic window into medieval life in Aberdeen."

Jason Finch, curator of archaeology and maritime history, for Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums, said: "The finds are an exciting mix that adds to the story of Medieval Aberdeen and everyday life in it. By examining the burials, we can learn about the lives people led and the injuries they suffered.

"Researching the surviving textiles and personal objects will give us a better understanding of how people dressed, animal bones, and shells can tell us about their diet while pottery finds could show what they ate and drank from."

In medieval times the focus of Aberdeen was around its large natural harbour and the main streets of Broad Street, Gallowgate and Castle Street. The town was a centre for trade; pottery was imported by sea from England, Northern France, the Low Countries and Rhineland. Silk from Italy and even a piece of elephant ivory were excavated in Queen Street, showing how far Aberdeen's trade links spread. At first the civic life of Aberdeen was by the harbour but in the early 14thCentury this moved to the area of Castlegate, due in part to flooding on the waterfront.

Religious life was important, fulfilling not only people's spiritual needs but also providing education and social services. Whilst the site of St Machar's Cathedral had been a focus for Christian activity since 6thCentury, there were numerous churches and religious orders in the town. A Dominican Friary was established between 1222 and 1249 on what was the edge of Aberdeen and is now Schoolhill, where the Art Gallery stands within its grounds.

Most of the people would have lived in houses made of wattle-and-daub hatched with heather, rushes or straw. Some of the larger buildings would have been roofed with pottery tiles but only a few would have been built of stone. Everyday life would be similar today many people would have worked in the industries and shops in the town while the discovering of a bone skate in Queen Street shows even in medieval times people went ice-skating.