Historical Evidence

How do we know how people lived in the past? We know because they left things behind them. Archaeologists are people who have been specially trained to look for and analyse evidence of how people lived in the past. Historians use documents, paintings and other sources from the past in order to understand how people lived.

Archaeologists in Aberdeen have found lots of things that tell us about how people lived in Aberdeen in medieval times.

Families who lived in medieval times produced a lot of waste which included broken or worn out possessions, like old shoes, clothes or bits of broken pottery; food waste like grains or bones from meat or fish, and human waste. As there was no running water there were no indoor toilets like today. Instead people dug special toilet or cess pits next to their houses. Other waste was thrown into a rubbish pit or midden.

When archaeologists find middens or cess pits, analysing what is in them can tell them lots about the things people owned, what they ate and how they lived.

How do archaeologists work out what they find? There are different ways in which archaeologists work out what it is they are looking at. Ovens were used in medieval Aberdeen in brewing (malting barley), baking and grain drying. When the remains of a baker's oven were found, archaeologists compared evidence with excavations of other medieval ovens. Sometimes archaeologists look at examples of similar ovens in use today. They might also look under a microscope to identify what something is made of, which can help them decide where the object came from or how it was used.

Archaeologists have found fragments of dyed cloth in colours such as yellow, brown and red. By analysing these fragments archaeologists found evidence of the weld plant used in dyeing but some dyes like the colour red were made from plants and insects which did not grow in Scotland. The madder plant and the insect kermes came from the Mediterranean. These produced two different kinds of red dye.

Written documents can tell us a lot about what food people ate, how much it cost, and where it came from. Documents can also tell us about people's houses, their jobs and the diseases from which they suffered.

Fragments Helmet Dice


Look at the items from the midden in the timeline.  What do they tell you about the family?.  Choose three things from your own house that are about to be thrown away.  What will they tell people in the future about you and how you live. 

Look at the bits of found crockery.  Can you work out what they were, from the fragments? When you think you know, click the additional information button to see an artists impression of what archeologists think the fragments were from.

Read this Extract from the Council Register Vol VIII, 9 October 1507.

It was statute and ordained by the Provest, the Baillies and the Council that the dyers of this Burgh will in future wash their clothes at the burn which passes from the west end of the Loch to the Denburn.  Also, in the future neither dyers, the skinners, the shoemakers nor any other craftsmen shall wash any of their stuff in the loch or the water courses of the Burgh.  Finally they shall close up the vents of the gutters that run from the work houses

What does it tell you about life in 1507.  Why do you think these new rules were made?  Do we have any similar rules today?