A Construction Project Reveals Whale Bones Beneath a Road in Scotland

Thought to have come from a large male sperm whale, they may be remnants of the whaling industry that once operated out of Edinburgh’s port

whale bones and cannonball
Bones that archaeologists say belonged to a large male sperm whale, alongside a 17th century cannonball. These items were discovered by archaeologists in Edinburgh, Scotland during excavations ahead of a new tram line. City of Edinburgh

In the port of Leith in Edinburgh, Scotland, the construction of a new light rail system unearthed a pair of bones thought to have come from a large sperm whale. According to archaeologists at the National Museum of Scotland, the bones may have been brought to shore as a trophy during the port’s whaling days, reports Brian Ferguson for the Scotsman.

Researchers are currently conducting radiocarbon dating to zero in on the age of the bones, but there is a possibility they’re up to 800 years old. The area around Leith was first settled at this time, according to the Scotsman.

“Discoveries like the whale bones have been particularly fascinating and exciting. These bones provide a rare glimpse into and also a physical link with Leith’s whaling past, one of its lesser known maritime industries and one which in the 20th century reached as far as the Antarctic,” says John Lawson, an archaeologist with the city of Edinburgh, in a statement. “Given the circumstances of how they were found it is possible that they may date back to the medieval period, and if so would be a rare and exciting archaeological discovery in Edinburgh.”

Lawson tells the Scotsman that the bones could have been some kind of trophy brought back by someone in the whaling industry, but that the fin bones strike him as an odd choice for a memento seeing as they are very heavy. Alternatively, Lawson speculates the bones could have come from a whale that beached nearby and somewhat randomly wound up beneath the pavement in Leith.

The excavation that turned up the whale bones—a matching radius and ulna of an adult male—began in November 2019. Along a stretch of Constitution Street, the dig was in preparation for adding almost three miles to a local tram line that would connect the port area of Leith and the district of Newhaven with the end of the Edinburgh tram line at York Place, reports Victoria Brenan for the Herald. The coronavirus pandemic halted excavations at the site, but work is scheduled to resume this month, according to the statement.

The project unearthed other relics, including an iron cannonball and a large stone wall that may both be remnants of Leith’s 16th or 17th century sea defenses, according to the Herald. The cannonball appears to be the same type used during the English Civil Wars. Likewise, the statement indicates archaeologists suspect the stone wall is part of a sea wall constructed during the town’s fortifications.

Earlier excavations removed part of a wall that encloses Constitution Street Graveyard dating back to 1790, according to a statement from Guard Archaeology Ltd., the company managing the archaeological work. The removal of the wall led to the discovery of a pit filled with human bones. The statement indicates these bones may have been placed there after being disturbed during 19th century construction projects that encroached on the historic cemetery.

“The Trams project will allow us to discover more about the history and development of Leith from the medieval period to the modern day," says Bob Will, a project manager with Guard Archaeology, in the statement.