Archaeologists excavating the site of Musselburgh’s new primary care centre have unearthed human skeletons dating back to the Iron Age.
The remains of decapitated bodies – the first of their kind to be found in Scotland – were uncovered along with the ramparts of a Roman fortlet.
The discovery of the burial site, containing both Iron Age and Roman skeletons, is deemed to be of national importance, shedding new light on early settlements around the Roman fort at nearby Inveresk Village.
Project manager Bruce Glendinning of CFA Archaeology said it was the skulls of the Roman skeletons that made the latest find unique.
“Some of the skeletons have been buried with their heads chopped off, for some unknown reason. This appears to have happened after they died, in some sort of burial ritual,” he told the News.
“We know of decapitated Romans found in York – thought to have been gladiators – but there have been none found in Scotland that we know of.”
The 10 or more skeletons, all believed to be male, have been removed to laboratories, where scientists are now studying their age and origins.
They will eventually be destined for the archives of the National Museum of Scotland, where they will be kept for future study.
As Roman cemeteries were often situated alongside roads outside their forts, Mr Glendinning said the location of the skeletons appeared to support the popular theory of a road leading from the fort at Inveresk down towards the River Esk.
He pointed out, however, that Musselburgh’s Roman Bridge was not actually built by the Romans – being built much later, possibly in the area of a crossing point believed to have been used by the Romans.
“At the moment there is no evidence of a Roman road, but this may provide some indication that there was a road in this general location,” he said.
While the skeletons are believed to date from around 140AD, the dig has also uncovered flints used in tool-making, thought be more than 6,000 years old.
“These are really exciting finds. Not only have we found significant Roman remains, but Iron Age as well,” Mr Glendinning continued.
“They are another piece in the jigsaw puzzle, allowing us to build up a clearer picture of what happened in the area around Inveresk during this period.”
The excavation is being carried out as part the construction contract for the £20 million primary care centre on the former Brunton Wiremill site.
The development is part of a larger masterplan for the site, which includes the new Tesco superstore and proposed housing.
Construction of the centre started in the summer and is scheduled for completion in spring 2012.
Dr Charles Winstanley, chairman of NHS Lothian, said: “We are absolutely delighted that work on the Musselburgh Primary Care Centre is moving according to our schedule and that the excavation work can progress at the same time. The Roman remains are an unexpected find and we are glad that we have been able to assist in the recovery of valuable, local, historical artefacts.”