In the summer of 1836, five Edinburgh schoolboys discovered something bizarre while searching for rabbits’ burrows near the rocky formation known as Arthur’s Seat. In the side of a cliff, they found a little cave – and inside that cave, seventeen tiny coffins, each with tiny wooden figures interred within them.
According to a London Times story dated July 20, 1836 – cited by the great anomaly hunter Charles Fort – each of the figures was…
…dressed differently in both style and material. There were two tiers of eight coffins each, and a third one begun, with one coffin. The extraordinary datum, which has especially made mystery here:
That the coffins had been deposited singly, in the little cave, and at intervals of many years. In the first tier, the coffins were quite decayed, and the wrappings had moldered away. In the second tier, the effects of age had not advanced so far. And the top coffin was quite recent looking.
The coffin dolls – which look like tiny casualties from a Tool music video – have remained a mystery to the present day, though only eight of the original seventeen have physically survived (they now reside in the National Museum of Scotland). Were they meant to represent certain people? Or were they occult objects? These questions have led to a number of theories about the origin of the “Arthur’s Seat Coffins”.
Witchcraft: “Satanic spell-manufactory” wrote The Scotsman, speculating there may still be “some of the weird sisters hovering about who retain their ancient power to work the spells of death by entombing the likenesses of those they wish to destroy.”
A burial for people who died overseas: Less tongue-in-cheek, the Edinburgh Evening Post proposed the coffins represented “an ancient custom which prevailed in Saxony, of burying in effigy departed friends who had died in a distant land.”
A burial for sailors lost at sea: The Caledonian Mercury reported a superstition “which exists among some sailors in this country, that they enjoined their wives on parting to give them a Christian burial in an effigy” if they were lost at sea.
A hoard of lucky charms: In 1976, historian Walter Hävernick of the Museum of Hamburg, referred to a “German seafaring superstition of keeping mandrake roots or dolls in tiny coffins as talismen,” theorizing that “the coffins were a hoard of lucky charms, hidden in the hillside by a merchant, to be sold to sailors.”
A burial for Burke and Hare’s victims: William Burke and William Hare were two Irish immigrants who sold corpses for the classrooms of anatomist Dr. Robert Knox. Not satisfied simply diggingup the recently buried, the two partners turned to murder, sourcing no fewer than 16 victims for Knox before they were caught in 1828. Could it be, the museum suggests, that the coffins’ secret interment “represents a substitute burial for the poor, friendless souls dispatched by the murderous pair?” But while it is true that “twelve of Burke and Hare’s victims were female,” the museum cautions, “the corpses in the coffins are all dressed as men.”
Nisbet, in his article “We’re Not Dead: The Arthur’s Seat Coffins Rise Again”, presents a different idea: that the coffin dolls might have actually been made to represent living people, rather than dead. He suggests that the Arthur’s Seat Coffins could have been a tribute to the targets of a political purge:
Scotland’s 1820 Radical War was a week-long populist uprising rooted in the earlier American and French Revolutions, culminating during the economic downturn following the Napoleonic Wars.
Punctuated by labor strikes and armed engagements between marchers and government forces, the uprising ended with the execution of three men and the transportation of 19 others to Australia. It is now known, however, that the government had precipitated the uprising using spies and agents provocateur. As a result, the Radical leaders were quickly identified and punished, and a new sense of Scottish national identity was soon orchestrated by literary lion Sir Walter Scott on the occasion of King George IV’s 1822 visit to Edinburgh. By the time the coffins were discovered, the rebellion had been largely forgotten, save perhaps by those whose loved ones had been lost to either the hangman’s noose or a ship bound for Australia.
And so it’s my theory that the artifacts’ raison d’être was to honor the Radicals, and that they were later “resurrected” in an attempt to keep the flame of rebellion lit in a land too quick to forget — an attempt that ultimately failed.
In support of his theory, Nisbet notes that the eyes of the tiny coffin dolls are open, which might suggest that they were still alive; the workers most associated with the uprising were weavers, and the dolls are all dressed in various clothing styles; and they seem to have been worked by tradesman’s tools.