The Creepy Mini Coffins Of Edinburgh

By Debra Kelly on Monday, January 27, 2014
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“He that unburied lies wants not his hearse, / For unto him a tomb’s the Universe.” —Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici

In A Nutshell

In 1836, a group of boys hunting for rabbits unearthed 17 miniature coffins that had been buried in Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh. The coffins average about 10 centimeters (4 in) long and about 2.5 centimeters (1 in) wide; each contained tiny, carved and clothed wooden bodies. Of the original 17, only eight survive, and they’re not giving up their stories. One hypothesis that is that they were carved and buried in tribute to the 17 people that body-snatchers William Burke and William Hare killed and sold for dissection.

The Whole Bushel

The precise details of how the miniature coffins were found has been lost to the mists of time and childhood. We do know they were found by a group of five boys who had been out hunting rabbits, and that only eight of the 17 miniature coffins and their occupants still exist. The rest were destroyed by the boys; fortunately, eight were saved by a schoolmaster and member of a local archaeological organization. After passing through several private collections, the coffins and their occupants can now be seen on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

In their original resting spot, the 17 tiny coffins had been arranged in three tiers; the bottom two tiers each contained eight coffins, and the remaining one sat on the top. The coffins in the bottom tier showed major signs of decay and age, while the top, single coffin seemed to be a relatively recent addition. They’re all roughly the same size: 8–10 centimeters (3–4 in) long, about 2.5 centimeters wide and roughly 2.5 centimeters deep. In each coffin was a hand-carved figure, dressed in handmade clothes, each one unique.

And figuring out anything definite about the coffins has proved difficult.

Close examination of the clothes has revealed very particular threads that had been used. These cotton threads weren’t manufactured before 1812, meaning that the figures must have been buried after that year. But the condition of the carved figures also suggests that they had been in their grave much longer than 20-odd years, leading some to believe that some figures were carved and buried around 1790, with others added later. Unfortunately, the destruction of many of the other coffins makes it impossible to prove or disprove; it’s even turned out to be impossible to tell if the coffins were all placed there at the same time.

Close examination of the woodcarver’s work suggests that the figures and the coffins were the work of at least two different people. It’s also clear that the figures inside the coffins weren’t originally meant to be there. Arms have been broken off several in order to fit them in the tiny boxes, and the figures are properly weighted to stand on their own, a consideration that wouldn’t have been made if they were only meant to lie down. Some appear to have once worn hats, and many have their feet darkened to give the appearance of boots. The clothing that they are wearing is all different, in different styles and made from different materials.

Who the tiny bodies are supposed to represent and who put them there remains a mystery, but there are some intriguing theories. Some say that they were used in witchcraft spells and ceremonies, while others think that they may have served as protective charms.

Another interesting theory is based on the original number of coffins, Scottish burial traditions and a possible coincidence with the infamous body-snatchers-turned-murderers William Burke and William Hare. Convicted of selling 17 bodies to Edinburgh’s medical schools for dissection, it’s theorized that the 17 coffins were the work of someone who was trying to give those 17 poor souls a burial that they never received. Scottish tradition at the time said that the lack of a proper burial would interfere with a soul’s passing to the afterlife; for the specific number of coffins and the time period, it’s thought a likely—but still unconfirmed—theory.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: Edinburgh’s Mysterious Miniature Coffins
National Museums Scotland: Arthur’s Seat coffins
Featured image credit: National Museums Scotland