Edinburgh 1836, on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, five boys made a strange discovery. Within the extinct volcano existed a small cave covered with slate which housed a stack of miniature coffins. Seventeen in total, each coffin had been painstakingly carved from scots pine bordered with tinplate, and contained a small wooden figure. To this day, the who’s and why’s of their creation and burial is still unknown.
The perplexing nature of the find, was interesting enough to garner interest from local newspapers of the time; each speculating and proposing an explanation for the figures.
Most popular with the locals was the suggestion of spell work or supernatural/occult rituals however, many of the newspapers postulated that it was a form of Christian burial for men lost at sea or in a foreign land. This was largely agreed upon until the 1990s, when a theory emerged that the seventeen figures in fact represented the seventeen victims of renowned serial killers Burke and Hare. In the 1820s, the Edinburgh pair made money by supplying their unfortunate victims to the medical establishment of the time, and due to the coincidental time frame and numbers, it was suggested the figures may have been made as a tribute to those killed. Although not disprovable, the theory has gained criticism due to the fact all the carved bodies were that of a male, and it was largely women that had been murdered.
The construction of two rows of eight and a third unfinished row, may also suggest that seventeen was not the intended number but rather the result of untimely disruption, and therefore have no connection to the victims of Burke and Hare.
In spite of the large interest and speculation around the coffins and their carved inhabitants, little investigation has been done on the discovery and as a result no one theory can be accredited. However, a small number of insights were obtained in 1994 by university scholars Allen Simpson and Samuel Menefee in their review of the case.
They concluded that the small figures had not been created for the intent of a burial, but were instead modified toy soldiers from the 1790s. Each were individually clothed and painted, however each figurine is identical in proportion and in some cases an arm was removed to allow the figure to fit within its coffin.
It was also noted that the models displayed variation in levels of decay, either in the state of the figures themselves or their clothes. Whether this is due to the coffins being buried over an extended period of time, or is simply the result of different positioning within the chamber is impossible to know.
The lack of any determinate answer, and obscurity surrounding the coffins has intrigued both locals and tourist for generations. As with many unsolved answers, the openness of interpretation has simply added to the coffins enduring appeal.
If after reading this you wish to see them for yourself, they can be found at the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, Edinburgh.