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Human Remains


Human remains are often found in museum collections, some of their stories are unexpected.

The University’s collections tell tales of grave robbery, notable crimes in the city, medical research, changes in burial practices and shifting attitudes to cultural heritage.


Mortsafe padlock from Kinmuck, Aberdeenshire

The Anatomy Museum contains many human remains. The acquisition of human remains prior to the Anatomy Act (1832) was both difficult and dangerous, and anatomists were often associated with grave robbing. As a result of widespread public outrage, graves were subject to protection from in-situ safes and watchmen. The Anatomy Museum holds examples of mortsafes and the locks used to protect them. Read more about mortsafes here.

The Anatomy Museum also holds 20 watercolours showing anatomical dissections dating from the early 1890s. These are unique among Scottish collections, because 16 can still be matched to the original fluid-preserved specimens prepared by Professor Robert Reid in 1890.


Skeleton, from cist found at the Upper Mains of Catterline, Kinneff, Kincardine

There is an extensive collection of human remains from across Scotland which contains examples of burials from different periods of Scottish history. Highlights include Scottish prehistoric collections (Orkney chambered cairns, Beaker-associated skeletons, Early Historic skeletons) and Scottish medieval skeletons from excavations in Perth, Aberdeen, St Andrews and Whithorn.


The collections also include human remains which were collected to demonstrate racial diversity in the teaching of anatomy, and others that were acquired alongside ethnographic collections. Some have now been returned to descendent communities and other discussions are under way to address this legacy.


Portrait of Andrew Moir by James Cassie

A gifted and self-taught anatomist, Moir earned a reputation as a resurrection man for the disinterment of corpses from graveyards, and suffered mob hostility as a result. More can be read about Moir here.