In 1836, five young Scottish boys were out hunting for rabbits on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, a hill in the centre of Edinburgh. After chasing a rabbit into a small cave, they saw something jammed into a crevice in the crag. It was the first of no less than seventeen miniature coffins – each one painstakingly carved out of pine and realistically ‘furnished’ with cut iron decorations.
The children pulled them out and were amazed to find that each tomb contained an individual wooden figure. All male figures, they had been individually and expertly carved, and then dressed up in their own set of clothes.
Unaware that they might be valuable or interesting, the boys played at throwing them about so several were “destroyed by the boys pelting them at each other as unmeaning and contemptible trifles” ( The Scotsman, 16 July 1836).
Now only eight of the seventeen remain intact, but what they were made for, or why they were hidden remains a mystery.
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 to far. And the top coffin was quite recent looking. Charles Fort
The coffins ended up in the collection of Robert Frazier, a South Andrews Street jeweller, who put them on display in his private museum until he retired in 1845 . They were sold at auction as “The celebrated Lilliputian coffins found on Arthur’s Seat, 1836” and fetched £4.8s. It was not until 1901, that a set of eight were finally donated to the National Museum of Scotland (where they remain today) by their then owner, Mrs Christina Couper of Dumfriesshire.
Various theories have been suggested as to their origin and meaning – from being gruesome reminders of murder victims, memorials to dead children, pagan ritual dolls, hangman’s souvenirs, or sailors lost at sea.
An excellent in-depth article on the subject is here
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