by Derek Hall
In 2008 the former SUAT Ltd began excavations on the site of the Carmelite friary of Tullilum prior to its proposed redevelopment for light retail units. Founded in 1262, the friary lay to the West of the burgh of Perth on the South side of the main medieval routeway into town (Longcauseway). The proposed development area covered most of the ground plan of the Carmelite church and its Western and Southern ranges and offered the opportunity to extend the knowledge and understanding of the site, the Eastern end of which was previously discovered in 1982, prior to the construction of the Whitefriars Industrial Estate (Hall 1987). Following initial site evaluation in 2007, eight weeks of full excavation was carried out in 2008 which succeeded in defining the friary churches ground plan, and excavating, recording and lifting 120 human burials from inside the church. Work on site was then halted due to the economic recession of 2008 and did not restart again until 2014. At that point, the excavation was taken over by Derek Hall in his own right as a sole trader and continued for 129 weeks until its completion in 2018.
The excavations recovered good archaeological evidence for the documented substantial remodelling of the friary church by the Bishop of Dunkeld in the early 16th century (Hannay 1915) and tantalising glimpses of what may have been an earlier church on the site that existed prior to the arrival of the Carmelites in 1262. Substantial stone robbing, some of which appeared to date to the Reformation (1559), meant that the Southern and Western ranges of the friary survived only as internal floor levels and robbed wall lines. The friary church had not been as badly robbed for stone and its Western end survived up to 1.6m in height due to its encapsulation in the later remodelling of the building.
A grand total of 302 human burials were finally excavated, recorded and lifted from the church building and several of those burials were distinguished by unusual burial rites for which, so far, there is little parallel in Scotland. For example, 32 of the excavated burials were accompanied by either wooden ‘staffs’ or ‘rods’ most of which were ‘green’ wood that had been deliberately cut at the time of burial. Examples of this unusual burial process are known from a small number of religious sites in England but there are virtually no other examples from Scotland (Gilchrist and Sloane 2005, 126, 171-4; Gilchrist 2015, 110-144). Research on its apparent meaning is continuing and it is of interest that the best parallels are from Scandinavian countries, suggesting that it may reflect a tradition that originates from there (Jonnson 2009, 108-127).
The burial of a female who had apparently died in childbirth was located with crossed holly branches on her chest and another female burial had a jet and glass bead necklace around her neck that may have originated as a rosary. Small glass beads also found with this burial suggest that she was buried in a beaded brocaded dress (Birgitta Hoffmann pers com). Two burials were also recovered from the church buried with shoes on their feet. In one of those examples, it was shoe soles and leather straps on the feet, suggesting that they were meant to resemble sandals. A ‘translated’ burial (moved from somewhere else) in a wood lined grave was discovered built into the Southern wall of the Carmelite church and may have been moved there from a mural tomb in the North wall of the church when it was remodelled.
A much larger wood lined grave containing three burials was located at the Western end of the extended church, the timbers used for this grave lining were clearly reused and may have originated as wall panelling from the church building.
Radiocarbon dates received so far from selected burials from the church suggest that the ‘staff’ burial tradition may date as early as the 13th century, and as there is one example from a burial in the Bishop of Dunkeld’s later extended church, was certainly still taking place in the 16th century. A Radiocarbon date for the burial with the jet and glass bead necklace suggests that it dates to around 1540. Preservation on the site was very good due to anaerobic (lack of oxygen) soil conditions hence the preservation of the wooden and leather objects in the graves.
Due to the amount of burials within the church there was a limited survival of internal features such as floor levels, but where evidence was recorded, the floors were made of layers of white mortar. Those mortar layers showed no evidence that they formerly held ceramic floor tiles, suggesting that the friary church had simple easily renewable floor surfaces, perhaps as regular burials in the church would have required the replacement of the floor surface. The foundation courses of an internal wall division between the Chancel and Nave and the remains of a stone packed trench, probably for a wooden rood screen, were also located, the stone packing of that trench including a fragment from the leg of an effigy of a knight dating to the late 13th or early 14th century which may have come from a mural tomb in an earlier version of the church, possibly the same one that the ‘translated’ burial had been moved from.
Excavations at the Western end of the church located the remains of a water supply for the friary that fed water down from Wellshill which lies 9m above the site to the North West (a gradient of 1:7). This supply ran across the church down the Western cloister arcade and into the South range, where it fed a wooden water trough in the floor. Radiocarbon dating of a human burial that was cut by the trench for the water supply provided a date of 1436-1512 AD, suggesting that the water supply was added by the Bishop of Dunkeld as part of his refurbishment of the friary complex.
The discoveries at Riggs Road / Whitefriar Street have provided a remarkable insight into the construction, operation and subsequent demise and destruction of what is probably the least understood of Perth’s four monastic houses (Hall 2020, 139-147). Discussions about the archaeological implications of this proposed development took place at an early stage in the planning process and the various applications submitted were conditioned for archaeology at each stage. Had the development work not been proposed it is highly unlikely that further excavations at the site of the Carmelite friary would have ever taken place. This project provides a good example of the benefit of having a well curated local Historic Environment Record and a sympathetic developer.
Gilchrist, R and Sloane, B 2005 Requiem the medieval monastic cemetery in Britain, MOLAS.
Gilchrist, R 2015 Sacred Heritage Monastic Archaeology, Identities, Beliefs. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/sacred-heritage/AEB8A828483A40ED849E005E54407A78
Hannay, R K (ed) 1915 Rentale Dunkeldense. Being accounts of the Bishopric (Ad1505–1517) with Mylne’s ‘Lives of the Bishops (AD1483–1517), Scot Hist Soc: Edinburgh. Available at: https://deriv.nls.uk/dcn23/1271/7985/127179857.23.pdf
Hall, D W 1987 Perth: the excavations. In: Stones, J Three Scottish Carmelite Friaries excavations at Aberdeen, Linlithgow and Perth 1980-86, 99-110. Society of Antiquaries Monograph Number 5. Available at: https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-2301-1/dissemination/pdf/Mono6.pdf
Hall, D W 2020 On The Edge: Excavations at Whitefriars, Perth 2014-2017. In: Sanchez-Pardo, J, Marron, E H and Tiplic, M C (eds) Ecclesiastical Landscapes In Europe An archaeological perspective, 139-147. Archaeopress Publishing Ltd. Available at: https://www.archaeopress.com/Archaeopress/Products/9781789695410
Jonsson, K 2009 ‘Practices for the Living and the Dead: Medieval and Post-Reformation Burials in Scandinavia’, Stockholm Studies in Archaeology 50, 108-127.