Though they were first discovered in a Scottish cave in 1836 by local schoolchildren, they remain a mystery nearly 200 years later, with various theories, myths, and conspiracy theories growing up around them despite their diminutive size.
What are they? 17 miniature coffins which remain the subject of great debate, according to Ancient Origins:
“Despite the passage of 181 years, researchers are no closer to ascertaining the creator or the purpose of the coffins, each of which contains a tiny, carefully dressed human figure.
“Some say that it is witchcraft. Others claim it is a symbolic burial of men lost at sea. One of the most intriguing theories is that the coffins were made in a kindly attempt to quiet the wandering souls of 17 people who were murdered for the dissection table by the notorious serial killers Burke and Hare.”
Only eight of the tiny coffins survive to this day, and they are on permanent display at the National Museum of Scotland.
Intricate Little Gems
The Scotsman describes the little coffins as containing “a miniature figure of the human form cut out in wood, the faces in particular being pretty well executed. They were dressed from head to foot in cotton clothes, and decently laid out with a mimic representation of all the funeral trappings which usually form the last habiliments of the dead.
“The coffins are about three or four inches in length, regularly shaped, and cut out from a single piece of wood, with the exception of the lids, which are nailed down with wire sprigs or common brass pins. The lid and sides of each are profusely studded with ornaments, formed with small pieces of tin, and inserted in the wood with great care and regularity.”
Who Made the Wooden Coffins?
Something made with so much care and attention to detail had to be done by someone with incredible skill, and researchers are of the opinion that they were likely made by someone skilled in the trade of shoe making:
“Further research has determined that the figures were most likely made by the same craftsman and the coffins were made by two different people. In addition, “the materials and tools used – wood, iron embellishments, nails, a sharp, hooked knife – indicate the coffins could have been fashioned by a shoemaker”
What Do the Coffins Symbolize?
Here’s where the mystery comes into play. Why would anyone make such things? They weren’t meant to be toys for children (were they?!) and they serve no real purpose, so why even construct such things in the first place?
To answer the linger question, we have to travel back to when the coffins were created and see what was happening at that time in Scotland.
For one thing, Scotland was becoming a center of great medical expertise, and its medical schools were training doctors, which led to a huge increase in enrollment.
Those studying anatomy needed bodies to dissect and examine, and that led to a dramatic increase in grave robbing:
“Among the most devious body snatchers in history were William Burke and William Hare, both Irish immigrants, as well as the famous Edinburgh anatomist and scholar Dr. Robert Knox. As a once-popular children’s rhyme retells, “Up the close and doun the stair/ But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare. Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief/ Knox the boy that buys the beef.”
But even the graveyards failed to provide enough bodies, and with authorities on close watch to make sure more graves weren’t robbed, Burke and Hare reportedly began dispatching victims via murder so they could continue to make bank by providing fresh bodies to local medical schools:
“And so began a vicious killing spree that lasted 10 months, during which Burke and Hare dispatched at least 16 victims [12 of whom were female] and earned around £150 (roughly £12,000 now – no mean sum).”
A Second Theory
Some say the coffins have nothing to do with Burke, Hare, and serial killings. Instead, they maintain, they were created to commemorate those who had been killed in the Radical War of 1820:
“Author and amateur historian Jeff Nisbet believes the miniature coffins were created to keep the ‘flames of rebellion lit’ following the Radical war of 1820. He suggests the coffins were meant to serve as a memorial honoring the Radicals who were killed.”
No matter what theory you subscribe to, there remains no concrete explanation for the creation of these small coffins, and in some ways that makes them even more fascinating than they otherwise would have been.
Here’s more on the coffins:
Featured Image Via National Museums Scotland