Edinburgh Lunch on 3 February 2024: John Lawson MA, MCIFA, FSA Scot, Archaeologist, Edinburgh City Council on the Archaeology of the Trams to Newhaven

Ever since the pioneering post-war rescue excavations in London (now incorporated within the Mithraeum Bloomberg Space project) supported by Winston Churchill at the end of his premiership which restored the Roman temple of Mithras to its place of discovery, archaeological work has gradually become a standard part of development procedures, written into English law in 1990 and into Scottish a couple of years later. Today the work is standard practice regulated by local authority archaeologists but undertaken by commercial archaeological companies working for the developers.

Excavations for the Edinburgh Tram go back to the original construction of the present line back in the 2000s. Three sites to the west of the city around Gogar had yielded a medieval village and prehistoric remains. On the route through Leith, digging of a gas main threw up human remains, and it was known that stabilisation of the South Leith graveyard wall along Constitution Street built in 1790 would require exhumations. However, at that moment the line was cut back, and there would be no further progress for eleven years.

When work did resume, it was decided not to hide away the archaeology but instead to open up to the public eye the sight of the Dara Archaeology team hard at work. The route of the new line was following the medieval road to Leith, where the medieval shoreline followed what is now Salamander Street and there had been a royal development around Kings Landing. Thomson's Map of 1822 revealed the presence of two bastions built to protect the port during the Napoleonic Wars, but a dry dock was constructed through them, and further damage done by the arrival from the west of the Caledonian Railway. Nevertheless, a sea-wall survived with evidence of land reclamation and rubbish dumped included many clay pipes. At Constitution Street, sperm whale bones were attributed to a stranding rather than to the commercial whaling which came later; and sixteenth century cannonballs recalled the siege of 1559. A mysterious square masonry structure with timber uprights, found in front of what became the Leith tram depot at Smith's Place, may have been the remains of an 18th century tolbooth.

It was at the graveyard of St Mary's along Constitution Street that the greatest activity took place. The 380 burials from prior to 1650 encountered back in 2008 had to be re-exposed, and every effort was made to minimise disruption to those dating from after 1790 by shoring up the boundary wall. The need for social distancing had to be factored into planning but did not delay the archaeology, which examined a further 385 burials in coffins or shrouds. A charnel pit revealed the fate of skeletons displaced by construction of a water pipeline, while the way that one body had been thrown in suggested that she might have been a murder victim and others bore evidence of disease perhaps indicating a connection with the nearby St Anthony's Hospital, with traces of a medieval burgage plot and of a sand quarry. Facial reconstruction by Dundee interns have enabled the faces of our ancestors to stare back at us while use of Vlogs promoted outreach to students of STEM subjects and coverage on BBC2's Digging for Britain reached the general viewer.

The expression ‘Pilrig muddle’ commemorates the need – until 1924 – to change there between Leith's electric trams and Edinburgh's cable ones. Excavations in 2021 for the new trams revealed the 2-metre diameter cable pulley-wheels. It seemed that a start had been made on their reclamation only for them to be thrown back into the ground. Now they have been mounted as public art at Iona Street.

The statue of Robert Burns on The Shore was removed for conservation and its time capsule renewed. Similarly, the clock at London Road was lovingly restored by Smith of Derby. Another statue, that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle near his Picardy Place birthplace, had to be relocated, while the original artist of the much-loved stone pigeons on Elm Row returned to see to their renewal.

In conclusion, John expressed the City Council’s thanks to its project partners: Morrison Utility Services, Turner & Townsend, tram consortium SFN and especially to GUARD’s excavation team for their hard work and dedication throughout the strangest and hardest of years during the time of Covid.