Sunday, August 12, 2012

The mystery coffins of Arthur's Seat

Edinburgh, Scotland, is home to Arthur's Seat, a group of hills that forms most of Holyrood Park. One of its claims to fame is having been written about by author Robert Louis Stevenson, and another is speculation that it could have been the location of Camelot. But a third claim to fame is a mysterious find made in 1836, with implications macabre at best and chillingly creepy at worst.

In a cave on Arthur's Seat, five boys discovered 17 tiny coffins with wooden dolls. The dolls are about four inches long, their coffins carved from authentic pine and decorated with iron. The coffins were buried in the cave floor in neat rows of eight, the rows stacked one atop the other and the lone top coffin beginning a new row. All of the dolls are dressed individually, obviously representing different people. And perhaps the most unsettling detail of all, the coffins appeared to have been buried over a long-term period of time, with the top ones being fresher and the lower layers being more decayed, suggesting that they were installed over a period of years and weren't just part of a gruesome children's game. Since their discovery, they've had a history in and out of collector's hands and now in a museum.

No one knows anything else about their story. Speculations include the theory that they might have been representational burials for sailors lost at sea, but why then hidden in a cave and not identified? Every other theory suggests some form of magic ritual - perhaps magic by a Pagan sect, since Scotland has Pagans as part of its history. Or a murderer committing this act to appease the spirits of his victims? Dolls sacrificed by generations? Representation of the victims of Edinburgh serial killers Burke and Hare?

It should be noted that Burke and Hare were anatomy murderers, who committed their deeds for profit, selling the bodies to doctors who used them for medical instruction. Since the corpses were then dissected and studied for science, it stands to reason that no un-defiled body would remain, and the murderers, being financially motivated, would suffer enough guilt over their trade that they felt motivated to commit this token gesture of remorse.

It's impossible to think about them long without having the imagination run wild. If they don't feature as a plot device in some future horror novel or film, it won't be for lack of suggestion.