The Arthur’s Seat Coffins

The Arthur's Seat Coffins By Kim Traynor - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins
By Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Arthur’s Seat, a hill near the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, is a place that inspires mystery and wonder. Cited by legend as a potential site for  Camelot, the hill has long had a place in local Scottish folklore, but perhaps the strangest story surrounding Arthur’s Seat is very much rooted in reality.

In June of 1836, five local boys were hunting for rabbits when they stumbled across something bizarre hidden in a rocky recess in the northeast side of the hill—17 tiny coffins, containing carved figures dressed in customized clothing.

No one at the time—or since—knew what to make of the odd figurines. The Scotsman, reporting on the story soon after the discovery, postulated that the figures were used in some malevolent witchcraft ritual. The Edinburgh Evening Post took its own stab at an explanation, claiming that the dolls were laid to rest by a modern practioner of an ancient custom from Saxony of burying effigies of friends who had died in far off lands.

None of these explanations were quite satisfactory, though. In time, the figures were forgotten. Of the 17 initially discovered, only about 8 survived, the rest having been destroyed by the boys themselves. In 1901, these remaining eight were donated by a private collector to the Musuem of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and then to the National Museums of Scotland. The conclusion these august institutions reached were in line with that of the Edinburgh Post—they were some sort of proxy burial. Who the effigies were meant to honor, no one knew.

While the mystery of why the coffins were made remained, in the 1990s more research into the dolls themselves shed more light on the circumstances of their creation. The figurines themselves were all created in the same style, probably by the same person, probably as a set. Their swinging arms, flat feet, and stiff bearing suggest they were originally crafted to be toy soldiers, while their open eyes suggest they were not intended to be corpses. This is further reinforced by the fact that some of the figures are missing their arms, which were in all probability removed so they could fit in the diminutive coffins. This led to the inference that the person who made the dolls and the person who made the coffins were two different people. The fabric the figures are clothed in is from the early 1830s, so they couldn’t have been buried much more than six years before they were discovered.

None of this shed any light on exactly why the little bodies were laid to rest on Arthur’s Seat. One more modern explanations is that the figures were tied to the infamous duo Burke and Hare, who killed 17 people in Edinburgh and sold the bodies to a medical school for dissection. The thinking goes that the figures were laid to rest in honor of those killed by the duo. The only real relation between the killings and the figures is the fact that they are close to one another chronologically—other than that, there is no relation between the two. In the end, two hundred years later, the mystery of the Arthur’s Seat is no closer to being solved.

Sources:

McLean, David. “Lost Edinburgh: The Arthur’s Seat coffins.” Scotsman.com. March 17, 2014. The Scotsman. March 28, 2016. http://www.scotsman.com/news/lost-edinburgh-the-arthur-s-seat-coffins-1-3342913

“The Mystery of the Miniature Coffins.” Nms.ac.uk. The National Museum of Scotland. March 28, 2016. http://www.nms.ac.uk/explore/collections-stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/mystery-of-the-miniature-coffins