Case Study: Education

Figure 51: A painting from c.1640 showing red-gowned students outside King's College chapel in the University of Aberdeen. Current archaeological excavations are focussing on the site of the late medieval grammar school that can be seen here as a low building abutting the street wall in front of the College, © University of Aberdeen

Figure 51: A painting from c.1640 showing red-gowned students outside King's College chapel in the University of Aberdeen. Current archaeological excavations are focussing on the site of the late medieval grammar school that can be seen here as a low building abutting the street wall in front of the College, © University of Aberdeen

The archaeological analysis of medieval education is in its infancy in Scotland. But the evidence is accumulating and archaeology is revealing important aspects at both ends of the medieval period. Excavations on the island of Inchmarnock, off Bute, at the remote (but well connected by sea) chapel site of St Marnock revealed rich evidence for monastic-based teaching on the island, during the 7th- 11th centuries, succeeded by post-12th century teaching activity in the context of a proprietorial church. The key evidence for a schooling practice is a large assemblage of slates variously incised with graffiti, pictures, inscriptions, letter-forms and board games (an aspect of elite education and not unexpected if fostering was an element of the schooling practice on Inchmarnock), concentrated enough to be interpreted as pointing to a school-house sited between the workshop area and the living quarters of the monastery, and in sight of the church and cemetery (Lowe 2008, figures 6.15 & 9.7 and p. 114-116 & 257-263). The key evidence for later schooling practice is a group of six slates inscribed with Gothic letter forms, dating to the 13th-15th centuries (Lowe 2008, 149-151), though it should also be acknowledged that some of the gaming boards are also post-1200, notably the merels boards and at least one fragmentary stone bearing two unrecognised designs for haretavl (‘hare and hounds’) and probably alquerque. The stone was excavated from a child’s grave of 17th/18th century date (Lowe 2008,169, IS.61) but could easily represent reuse of a medieval graffiti.

For the later medieval period elsewhere in Scotland there are several important pieces of material culture (notably the 15th century maces from the Universities of St Andrews and Glasgow – Caldwell 1982, 88-90) but it is only recently that excavation has started to contribute to our understanding of the medieval origin and development of universities in Scotland though there is some way to go to compete with some of the results achieved for the Continent. In Rostock, Germany, for example, extensive excavations have shone new light on the university buildings (for teaching, faculty and professors houses) and the study of magic at the university (Münch and Mulsow 2005).

At King’s College, archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen have begun investigating the buried history of their institution, focusing on the site of a late medieval grammar school. The building is depicted on Parson Gordon’s coloured map of Old Aberdeen from 1661, and on several contemporary paintings, showing a single-storey stone structure located near the chapel founded by Bishop Elphinstone. Documentary records indicate that the school was in existence at least from the Reformation, and aimed to provide remedial tuition in Latin for students – some as young as 11 – whose existing skills were not up to the task of university studies (Stevenson & Davidson 2008, 134f). In oblique light conditions sub-surface features are clearly visible on the College lawns, and geophysical surveys have confirmed the presence of buried masonry structures where the school is believed to have stood. Full-scale excavations are planned to begin soon, incorporated into a new research programme for the archaeology of the King’s College campus and its environs.