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The Miniature Coffins of Arthur’s Seat

At the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh are a set of eight miniature coffins carved in wood and decorated with tinned iron. Each coffin contains a tiny wooden figure, with a painted face and dressed in clothes that had been stitched and glued around them. Since their discovery in a cave by a group of young lads one June afternoon in 1836, the miniature figurines have been a source of much fascination and mystery.

The boys had been out all day hunting for rabbits on the slopes of a rocky peak known as Arthur’s Seat, when their attention was drawn towards a small cave hidden behind a slab of slate. After pulling back the slab of stone, the boys found seventeen little coffins inside, each barely 4 inches long, arranged in three tiers—two rows of eight, and a solitary coffin at the top.

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The discovery was important enough to find a place in the July 16th edition of The Scotsman, year 1836. The paper reported:

Each of the coffins contained a miniature figure of the human form cut out in wood, the faces in particular being pretty well executed. They were dressed from head to foot in cotton clothes, and decently "laid out" with a mimic representation of all funeral trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead. The coffins art about three or four inches in length, regularly shaped, and cut out from a single piece of wood, with the exception of the lids, which are nailed down with wire sprigs or common brass pins. The lids and sides of each art profusely studded with ornaments formed of small pieces of tin, and inserted in the wood with great cart and regularity.

Stranger still were the signs that seemed to imply that the coffins were deposited over a considerable period of time, “indicated by the rotten and decoyed state of the first tier of coffins and their wooden mummies.” The early coffins had the wrapping cloth, in some instances, “entirely mouldered away, while others show various degree of decomposition”, while the coffin placed last was “as clean and fresh as if only a few days had elapsed since their entombment.”

The article concluded—but with some hesitation—that the coffins were the misdoings of “some of the weird sisters hovering about Mushat’s Cairn or the Windy Gowl, who retain their ancient power to work the spells of death by entombing the likenesses of those they wish to destroy.”

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Indeed, witchery was the most immediate assumption. Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, have a dark history of witch trails. Between 4,000 to 6,000 “witches” were executed in Scotland between the 16th and 18th centuries, 300 of which were burned at the Edinburg Castle—more than anywhere else in Scotland. Today, there is a memorial fountain at the Castle, known as the Witches’ Well, commemorating all the murdered women.

Before long other newspapers picked up the story, concluding with their own interpretation of the coffins. The Edinburgh Evening Post mused whether the coffins might be “an ancient custom which prevailed in Saxony, of burying in effigy departed friends who had died in a distant land.” The Caledonian Mercury concurred adding that some sailors also instruct their wives on parting to give them 'Christian burial' in an effigy if they happened to be lost at sea.

In the 1990s, a new theory emerged linking the seventeen figures to the seventeen victims of the notorious Edinburgh serial killers Burke and Hare, who in the late 1820s went on a killing spree to supply cadavers to medical practitioners. It was proposed that the tiny figures are tributes to the victims, despite the fact that the pair’s victims were mostly women while all the wooden bodies were dressed in men’s clothing.

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William Hare and William Burke.

Dr. Allen Simpson and Professor 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 that the toys were not carved for the purpose of burial but 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. The conclusion was based on the findings that some of the dolls had their arms removed, apparently to allow the figures to fit into its coffin, and markings on their lower bodies that seem to indicate the figures were originally made to stand upright. Their eyes were also painted open, making it unlikely they were originally designed as corpses.

Of the seventeen original coffins, only eight survived and are at Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland. The rest, as The Scotsman of July 16, 1836, reported, were “either badly damaged or lost altogether as the decrepit-looking cache provided convenient fodder for the boys to pelt one another with.”

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The landscape around Arthur’s Seat, whose peak can be seen on the right. Photo credit: Mikko Muinonen/Flickr

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