Strange moments in Edinburgh’s history: The mystery of the miniature coffins found at Arthur’s Seat

Strange moments in Edinburgh’s history: The mystery of the miniature coffins found at Arthur’s Seat

It was a group of boys out hunting for rabbits who found the coffins one summer’s day in 1836.

They were roaming a rocky peak known as Arthur’s Seat that overlooks Edinburgh, Scotland, when their attention was caught by a small cave, its entrance carefully covered with pieces of slate. After pulling back the slabs of stone, the boys found 17 coffins, each about 3.7 inches long, arranged in three tiers—two rows of eight, and a solitary coffin at the start of a third row.

Inside each was a small wooden doll, its face carved with wide-open eyes, dressed in plain cotton clothes that covered the thin body from bare head to flat feet. The question of who carved the figures and coffins—and why—has been a mystery ever since. Were the objects tools of witchcraft, part of a pagan ritual, or a memorial to one of the era’s most notorious killing sprees?

A STRANGE DISCOVERY

The Scotsman was the first to report on the discovery, on July 16, 1836, noting that the “Lilliputian coffins” were all “decently ‘laid out’ with a mimic representation of all the funeral trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead.”

Stranger still, it seemed “evident that the depositions must have been made singly, and at considerable intervals—facts indicated by the rotten and decayed state of the first tier of coffins and their wooden mummies [… while] the coffin last placed, and its shrouded tenant, are as clean and fresh as if only a few days had elapsed since their entombment.”

From the beginning, theories swirled around the discovery of the so-called “fairy coffins,” with some declaring them ritualistic offerings, and others describing them as creepy child’s playthings.

The Scotsman wrote, “Our own opinion would be, had we not some years ago abjured witchcraft and demonology, that there are still 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.” Indeed, the moody Arthur’s Seat has long drawn tales of witches casting spells on its volcanic hill; Edinburgh’s dark history includes an estimated 300 people sentenced for witchcraft, with more burned there in the 16th century than anywhere else in Scotland.

Nor are witches the only aspects of folklore to be mentioned in connection with the coffins. Later in 1836, the Edinburgh Evening Post posited that the coffins might be related to an “ancient custom which prevailed in Saxony, of burying in effigy departed friends who had died in a distant land.” The Caledonian Mercury chimed in, saying that they had “also heard of another superstition which exists among some sailors in this country, that they enjoined their wives on parting to give them ‘Christian burial’ in an effigy if they happened [to be lost at sea].”

Yet as George Dalgleish, keeper of Scottish history and archaeology at National Museums Scotland, says in a 2015 video, there’s little evidence of such ceremonial burial practices in Scotland. And if a doll were created for witchcraft purposes, he notes, it’s likely it would have been mutilated or destroyed rather than carefully bundled in stitched cotton clothing and hidden within a cave.

In the 1990s, a new theory emerged—linked to one of the darkest chapters in Edinburgh’s history.

“ATROCIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES”

Scottish doctor Robert Knox

In the early 19th century, Edinburgh was home to a thriving underground trade in dead bodies. The buyers were medical students and their teachers, who required the corpses for training and study but who were legally limited to a small number of executed convicts for their supply.

William Burke and William Hare saw an opportunity. Their gruesome business plan was sparked when, in 1827, one of the lodgers at Hare’s boarding house died suddenly while still owing £4 in rent, and they sold his remains to anatomist Dr. Robert Knox for 7 pounds 10 shillings (about $820 today). Rather than waiting for more spontaneous deaths, the pair turned to murder, targeting travelers and downtrodden characters whose disappearance was not likely to be noticed.

After making a small fortune from the sale of their victims to Dr. Knox, they were caught when a lodger discovered a body in a pile of straw. Hare turned king’s evidence on Burke, agreeing to testify against his fellow murderer for immunity. Burke was hanged, dissected as punishment, and his skin bound into a book.

But what do these infamous murders have to do with the enigmatic coffins? As author Mike Dash notes for Smithsonian.com, the link was first proposed by two visiting fellows at the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh—Professor Samuel Menefee and Dr. Allen Simpson, a curator at National Museums Scotland.

The pair examined the construction of the coffins and concluded that they had all been deposited in the 1830s. They also noted that the 17 coffins found in the cave match the number of Burke and Hare victims (including the first, who died a natural death).

As to why someone would create such a strange tribute to the murders, the answer may be tied to the belief in the need for a complete body on Resurrection Day. This is part of the reason dissection was often used as a punishment for criminals.

Menefee and Simpson theorized that perhaps the coffins were crafted to return corporeality, or at least some symbolic dignity, to the dissected victims. As they write, “it would not be unreasonable for some person or person, in the absence of the 17 dissected bodies, to wish to propitiate these dead, the majority of whom were murdered in atrocious circumstances, by a form of burial to set their spirits at rest.”

National Museums Scotland
National Museums Scotland

NATIONAL MUSEUMS SCOTLAND

Of course, correlation does not imply causation, and there are many holes to be poked in the Burke and Hare theory. For one thing, all the wooden bodies were dressed in men’s clothing, but the pair’s victims were mostly women. Furthermore, the eyes of the figures are open, not closed like a corpse. Some have even speculated that Burke himself made the coffins, as their woodworking and tin decorations suggest the hand of a shoemaker—Burke’s profession when he was not suffocating Hare’s guests.

Eight of the coffins have been on display almost continuously at Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland since 1901. (As to what became of the nine other coffins, the Scotsman wrote in their initial report that “a number were destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles.”)

David S. Forsyth, the principal curator of Renaissance and early modern history at National Museums Scotland, says the coffins still draw comments from museum-goers. “It’s the mystery behind them that makes them so compellingly intriguing, no one can solely own their story,” he tells Mental Floss. “They can be linked to the more intangible aspects of our culture and history, or to real episodes such as Burke and Hare.”

In December 2014, there was a curious twist in the case. A box was delivered to the museum with no return address. Inside was a detailed replica of the coffins found in 1836, down to the metal details on the lid and the roughly carved face of its figure. A note included with the object cryptically began “XVIII?,” suggesting this was an 18th addition to the group, and quoted Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story “The Body Snatcher” (1884), itself inspired by Burke and Hare.

The handwritten text declared the miniature coffin a “gift” to the National Museum of Scotland, “for caring for our nation’s treasures.” Especially the eight that cannot be explained.

The mummified corpse of ‘magical’ baby boy who died 50 years ago attracts thousands of pilgrims

The mummified corpse of ‘magical’ baby boy who died 50 years ago attracts thousands of pilgrims

There are thousands of pilgrims hundreds of miles traveling to visit the tiny body of Miguel Ángel Gaitán, Spanish for “Miracle Child”. “El Angelito Milagroso.”

Fifteen days prior to his first birthday in 1967, Miguel died of meningitis. Seven years ago, however, he apparently returned from beyond the grave seven years later and refused to go back – so his family members displayed their wrinkled corpse to worshippers to visit. 

A young boy poses with Miguel

El Angelito was buried where he was born in Banda Florida, a small town in the northwest of Argentina.

But seven years later something odd began to happen when the boy’s grave and the coffin would often be found open – with objects and pieces of a stone thrown all around it.

The cemetery janitors initially blamed violent rainstorms that were battering the city at the time.

But the mysterious happenings continued even after the weather improved.

Pilgrims leave flowers, pictures, and toys around Miguel

The boy’s mother said: “We would even put stones and other objects over the cover – but every morning we’d find it open.

“We then figured Miguelito did not want to be covered – he wanted to be seen.”

Villagers moved the coffin out in the open – but then the coffin’s lid kept being removed.

Interpreting the bizarre phenomenon as a further sign Miguel wanted to be seen, the family moved him to a coffin with a glass lid.

Even after almost 50 years, Miguel’s tiny wrinkled corpse is still incredibly well-preserved.

The child’s body quickly became a local attraction and rumours began to spread far and wide about his supposed magical powers.

For decades now thousands of Argentinians from across the country have descended on the remote town to seek a miracle.

One man – Daniel Saavedra – went to visit El Angelito when he fell ill with a rare pancreatic disease and within weeks he made a full recovery – he claims.

While some people believe touching the mummy’s forehead can help them, others just come to see the peculiar situation and hear the story.

Many of the visitors leave toys and flowers at the tomb.

Moment horrified sailor finds mummified remains of German adventurer on stricken yacht

Moment horrified sailor finds mummified remains of German adventurer on stricken yacht

On a yacht floating off the Philippines, fishermen have discovered the mummified body of a German sailor.

After two people made the discovery, the police were investigating. Officers discovered that the dead person is Manfred Fritz Bajorat, aged 59, from identity documents found on the ship.

Manfred Fritz Bajorat’s body was recovered inside a drifting yacht in the seas off Barobo. Fishermen found his corpse inside the radio room of the yacht.

The deputy police chief of the near-by Barabo city, Inspector Mark Navales, said that although it was unclear how Bajorat’s death was caused there were no signs of foul play.

“It is still a mystery to us,” said Navales.

Bajorat’s body was found seated at a desk in the radio room, slumped over on his right arm “like he was sleeping”, said Navales.

The body of Manfred Fritz Bajorat found inside the boat

His exact time of death had not yet been determined. The yacht was found in the Philippine Sea about 100km (60 miles) from Barabo.

Bajorat had reportedly been sailing the world on his yacht, Sayo, for the past 20 years.

Reports said he had not been sighted since 2009. But a friend told the media that he had heard from the mariner in 2015 via Facebook.

Authorities were attempting to contact his friends and family in Germany in the hope they would be able to shed light on his movements.

The police investigation found no obvious signs of violence but could not determine the cause of death.

Navales said items inside the yacht were scattered and Bajorat’s wallet was not found but the yacht’s radio, GPS and other valuable items were still there.

Dr. Mark Benecke, a forensic criminologist in the German city of Cologne, told the Bild newspaper: “The way he is sitting seems to indicate that death was unexpected, perhaps from a heart attack.”

Reports suggested that dry ocean winds, hot temperatures, and the salty air helped preserve his body.

The yacht was found floating off Barabo.

A Japanese farmer digging a ditch found the precious gold seal of King of Na

The precious King of Na gold seal was discovered by a Japanese farmer digging a ditch

The concept of a national treasure came into being at roughly the same moment as a national anthem, both of which are typical of romantic nationalism in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Many nations have been creating lists of their national treasures ever since. There are now thousands of such cherished items can be seen around the world.

Although some items or artifacts are seen as common cultural property, others may carry exceptional monetary value. Frequently, such items are rare cultural artifacts, and one story about such an artifact, and how it was found, brings us to Japan.

The Far Eastern country has some 46 items or sets of items in its possession, many of which originated in ancient or feudal-Japanese periods.

They are kept in various temples, shrines, universities, or museums, and one very special item of the 46 can be seen as part of the collection of the Fukuoka City Museum in Fukuoka. It is the King of Na gold seal.

Snake knob of the King of Na gold seal, the item is not more than 0.9 × 0.9 × 0.9 in.

As the story goes, this solid gold seal was discovered in 1784 on Shikanoshima Island in the Fukuoka Prefecture. It is thought that the seal was cast in China, after which it was delivered to Japan as an honorable gift by the Emperor Guangwu of Han while conducting a diplomatic visit to the island country in 57 AD.

Five Chinese characters are embedded in the unique seal, and studying them has helped historians identify the seal as belonging to the King of the Na, ruling the state of the Wa, which was a vassal state of the Han Dynasty in Japan.

As ancient Chinese chronicles suggest, the seal followed a pattern used with Chinese jade seals. However, what really makes it so special is that it is made of gold.

Composite image showing two views of the seal.

That same year, the King of the Na had sent envoys to the capital of China to return the honorable deed by offering tribute and formal greetings for the New Year.

The vassal state, which had thrived in the Fukuoka district, ceased to exist at some point during the 3rd century AD, and the seal was quickly lost and forgotten. It was rediscovered some 1,500 years later, which makes for one of the most striking episodes in the entire story.

Snake knob from the top view.

It would be an Edo-period farmer named Jinbei who discovered the invaluable item on April 12, 1784, while attempting to repair an irrigation ditch on Shikanoshima Island.

Reportedly, the seal was found surrounded by stones arranged in a box-like structure. The stone above the seal, being quite heavy, required two adults to lift it.

Seal face of the King of Na gold seal. Inscribed with King of Na, Vassal of Han [Dynasty] in mirrored Chinese characters

The discovery of the golden seal was of great importance because it helped acknowledge and verify the very existence of Nankoku, the vassal state, which had previously been known only from ancient chronicles.

Engraved upon the seal can be read the Chinese characters 漢委奴國王(Kan no Wa no Na-no-Koku-ō), which translates to “seal of the King of the Na state of the Wa of the Han Dynasty.”

As soon as it was rediscovered, the seal was kept by the Kuroda clan, who held authority and power over the Fukuoka district. Eventually, the family donated the seal to Fukuoka city in 1978.

Commemorative monument near the site where the seal was uncovered in 1784.

The gold of the seal is of a remarkable 95 percent purity. It is made up of a square base, showing the seal itself on the bottom side.

The ancient design also features a handle on the top of the base, resembling the shape of a coiled serpent, and it weights 3.85 ounces. Base to handle, the seal does not extend more than an inch, but the dimensions do correspond to the traditional Chinese standard unit of length, typical for the Later Han Dynasty.

The area on Shikanoshima Island where the Gold Seal of the King of Na was found was later developed into a park to commemorate the discovery, the park was given the name Kin-in Park. The island itself is no more than seven miles around but is connected to the Japanese mainland by a road.

Angkor Wat Was an Even Bigger Feat Than All of the Egyptian Pyramids Combined

Cambodia’s Angkor Wat used far greater amounts of stone than all the Egyptian pyramids combined

Some of the enormous relics of the past are captivating. Egypt’s great pyramids, China’s Great Wall and Paris ‘ Eiffel Tower are all examples of stunning engineering appearances for the time in which they have been built.

When we think about some of the world’s largest human constructions, we will definitely find some mind-blowing facts and figures. Firstly, the magnificent water fountains in the Gardens of Versailles, which at one point in their history consumed more water per day than the entire city of Paris; and, despite the technology available to us today, the Sagrada Familia of Gaudí in Barcelona is still being a work in progress, which was begun in 1882.

Such wonders made by people become symbols not just of the cities to which they belong, but of the entire nations as well. This is no different for Angkor Wat of Cambodia, which is probably the main symbol of this beautiful Asian nation and its excellent source of domestic pride.

One can become mesmerized by nearly any aspect concerning the monumental Angkor Wat, starting with the fact that the entire work is the architectural representation of the sacred Mountain Meru of Hindu mythology, a counterpart of Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. The statistics of how it was built and created are truly impressive.

A superb illustration of the classical Khmer architecture, ever since it was first seen by Western travelers during the 16th and 17th centuries the temple complex of Angkor Wat has been a source of fascination and awe. Initially, Angkor Wat functioned as a Hindu temple honoring the god Vishnu under the Khmer Empire, but by the end of the 12th century, it had transformed into a great Buddhist temple.

The imposing beauty of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

By the 12th century, Khmer architects were skillful and knowledgeable enough to make striking use of sandstone, rather than more the commonly used construction materials such as brick or laterite.

Sandstone blocks form most of the areas seen by the naked eye of the holy site. Laterite was not used as the main building material and was more often used for parts like hidden structures or the outer walls of the architectural wonder.

A lingering question has been what was used to bind these two different materials together. Natural resins or slaked lime are likely to be two of the more acceptable answers to the dilemma. Nevertheless, nearly everyone would agree that this temple “attains a classic perfection,” as said by mid-20th-century Angkor Wat conservator Maurice Glaize. In Glaize’s words, “it is a work of power, unity, and style.”

Northwest corner tower of the first gallery of Angkor Wat, viewed from the second enclosure.

We might be more intrigued by the question of how the Great Pyramid of Giza was built, but it is similarly striking how Angkor Wat was built by the ancient Khmer architects. As smooth as highly polished marble, the stones that compose Angkor were laid without the use of mortar. The joints between the pieces are so tight that it is sometimes hard to even notice.

The blocks were often held together by mortise and tenon joints at some points during construction. They were also constructed using dovetail joints and gravity. As different scholars point out, most of the blocks had holes 0.98 inches diameter and 1.2 inches deep in them. It is disputable whether iron rods might have been used to join the blocks as one group of scholars claim. Others have claimed that iron pegs may have been used temporarily to help maneuver the stones into place.

Angkor Wat as viewed from the rear.

It is an impressive fact that Angkor Wat was made out of at least 5 million and perhaps as many as 10 million sandstone blocks. The maximum weight of each block would have been roughly 1.5 tons. These numbers speak for themselves, as it means the entire city of Angkor used up far greater amounts of stone than all the pyramids of Egypt put together. Also, the monumental site occupied an area significantly greater than modern-day Paris.

Furthermore, if the Egyptian pyramids frequently made use of limestone quarried in close proximity to the pyramid building sites, the entire temple complex was built with sandstone quarried quite farther off in the mountains. The building resource was transported all the way from a quarry situated on Mount Kulen, some 25 miles northeast of Angkor.

The Angkor Wat embraced by some wild vegetation. 

A few theories have been put forward to answer how the stone was moved from the mountain to the city. One suggestion is that the route involved 22 miles through a canal approaching Tonlé Sap Lake. From there it would have meant passing the lake for another 22 miles and finally nine more miles moving against Siem Reap River’s currents. Altogether, this route would have made for a journey of 56 miles.

A more recent suggestion made in 2012 by two Japanese scholars, Etsuo Uchida, and Ichita Shimoda, pointed out a possible shortcut, a 22-mile-long canal joining Mount Kulen and Angkor Wat. The discovery of this newly found route was made possible with the use of satellite scanning, and the two scholars have backed the idea that this may have been a more plausible route to use to bring the building resource to the construction site.

Northern library of Angkor Wat.

What’s perhaps even more fascinating is that literally all of the facades, pillars, lintels, and even the roofs composing Angkor Wat are carved. The site is embraced with miles of reliefs illustrating scenes and depictions found in old Indian literature. The curious eye can come across the most unusual and mystical creatures, such as unicorns, griffins, or winged dragons pulling chariots. Other imposing depictions show warriors following a leader mounted on an elephant or celestial girls dancing with some intricate hairstyles.

Experts such as Roger Hopkins and Mark Lehner have also conducted experiments to demonstrate the effort required to produce the entirety of Angkor Wat.

One of the experiments conducted showed it took 12 quarrymen and some 22 days of work to take some 400 tons of stone. Not to mention the labor force needed for transporting the goods–it must have taken thousands of people to build the divine site.

The skills needed to carve the reliefs were developed over hundreds of years before the monumental work was built, something proved by artifacts found and dated to the seventh century before the Khmer Empire came to prominence.

If Angkor Wat had less than 8,000 travelers paying a visit to the site back in 1993, the numbers dramatically changed in a decade. According to Cambodia’s government officials, the site was visited by half a million travelers in 2004. By 2012, the number of travelers stopping by the Siem Reap province to check out the glorious monument officially exceeded 2 million.

All In One Magazine