I was recently in Edinburgh for the really incredible Sensualising Deformity conference, and while there I was reminded of my one of my favorite museum objects, in the National Museum of Scotland: the mysterious little coffins of Arthur’s Seat.
In 1836, five boys were hunting rabbits on the north-eastern slopes of Arthur’s Seat, the main peak in the group of hills in the center of Edinburgh. In a small cave in the crags of the hill they stumbled across seventeen miniature coffins carved in pine and decorated with tinned iron. Carefully arranged in a three-tiered stack, each coffin contained a small wooden figure with painted black boots and individually crafted clothing.
What are these objects? Who made them and who buried them? And why? To this day, no one has any real idea. (But read on for some theories…)
At the time of their discovery, some speculated that they were implements of witchcraft; others suggested they were charms used by sailors to ward off death or even mimic burials for those lost at sea. There is also a provocative theory that the little figures are tributes to the seventeen victims of famed Edinburgh serial killers Burke and Hare, as the figures were found just seven years after Burke’s execution. However, all of the figures are dressed in male attire, whereas twelve of Burke and Hare’s victims were female.
Interestingly, some of the figures have arms while others have had theirs removed to fit in their coffins, perhaps suggesting they were not originally made to be buried.
Allen Simpson and Samuel Menefee (of the University of Edinburgh and the University of Virginia, respectively) carried out a detailed study of the figures in 1994, and have suggested they were adapted from a set of wooden toy soldiers manufactured around the 1790s, but not re-clothed or buried in the cave until the 1830s. But this is really the extent of knowledge about them.
Only eight of the original seventeen coffins and figures still survive today: several disintegrated with age, while others were “destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles” (according to The Scotsman, 16 July 1836). These remarkable objects still remain a mystery today, but with the recent digitization of 19th century newspapers like The Scotsman, Mike Dash suggests there might be potential for new revelations if anyone can match them to an obscure report of a shipwreck or accident with seventeen male victims.
Do you have any alternative theories? When I first saw them, I thought of a mother carving them for stillborn or miscarried children: portraits of the sons she never got to raise, made from the toys they never got to play with.