Coffins in the Shale

In the 21st century we take great care to preserve the past. Our museum and archive stores are temperature and humidity controlled, and security is given great prominence with locked cases, guards and CCTV overseeing displays.

Security guard
A security officer guards the Elgin Marbles

We also go to great lengths to ensure that important historical objects are not destroyed during major infrastructure projects. For example, during London’s Crossrail project, archaeologists were called in every time a potential object was uncovered. The result was a treasure trove of objects, from fossils to skeletons to coins, and even parts of a 13th century fishing vessel.

Crossrail artefacts
Artefacts found during the digging of the Crossrail tunnel in London

But interest in the past is not a new phenomenon, with major museums being set up in the 17th century (Ashmolean), with a large number being set up in the 19th century (V&A, Natural History Museum, National Museum of Scotland) to house interesting artefacts.

The sources of these objects were diverse, but the industrialisation of the mining industry led to the uncovering of objects that could never have been found in the days before mechanical diggers replaced the pick axe. Almost as soon as the shale industry was been founded in the mid-19th century shale workers began digging up artefacts of note. Many of these will never be known, as miners would simply have pocketed old coins or treasures made of precious metals.

A tree bark fossil on display at the Museum of the Scottish Shale Oil Industry

But their finds, when it did not benefit them financially, would often be passed to a mine manager or owner, and in turn passed to a renowned historian or archaeologist. The most common finds were of fossilised ferns and fish (one miner even claimed to have found a live fish within the shale). Occasionally a more interesting artefact would be found, sparking the interest of the local newspapers.

stone cist
A stone cist similar to the two found at Hopetoun Oil Works in 1906. Courtesy of

In 1906, at the Hopetoun Oil Works, two stone cists were uncovered, just 18 inches below the surface, 6 feet in length and up to 20 inches across. Mr Allison, the works manager, gave directions that the utmost care was to be made to preserve what was found within – a well-preserved lower jawbone with teeth, part of a scapula, and the head of a humerus. The bones were boxed and forwarded to Dr Joseph Anderson of the National Antiquarian Museum in Edinburgh who, when presented with information about the burial area, was able to denote the burial as a Christian one.

Joseph Anderson
Joseph Anderson among the displays in the Royal Institution, Edinbugh, 1890. Source: Clarke, DV 2002 ‘“The foremost figure in all matters relating to Scottish archaeology”: aspects of the work of Joseph Anderson’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 132, 1-18.

So steeped in archaeological finds was the shale field that amateur archaeologist Stan Wood set up a fossil factory in Livingston in 1983. He went on to become a highly-respected expert in his field, selling fossils throughout the world.