Monday, 4 February 2013

The King in the car park

So, after much hype and media coverage the announcement has finally been made that the team at one of my former institutions, the University of Leicester, believe that the body found in a Leicester car park is indeed that of controversial monarch Richard III.

Image copyright University of Leicester
The circumstantial evidence coming out over the past few months makes it little surprise that this is the conclusion, though I confess I expected a few more caveats thrown in with the announcement.  There has been a small amount of academic sniping at the announcement, particularly about how public it is, though I struggle to understand the viewpoint.  Yes, things have been hyped up to high levels and the University of Leicester is milking the moment, but why not?  The study of history is supposed to be exciting, and the rediscovery of a king is certainly that.  OK, most archaeological research takes place in far less dramatic circumstances and with fewer TV cameras there to record the process, and this research should of course be valued.  But that doesn't mean that we should shy away from creating wider public interest when a truly remarkable discovery occurs.  At least the discovery was made as part of a structured, multidisciplinary archaeological project and the announcement made on the basis of evidence that can, and I am certain will, be verified and debated in the future.

I'm afraid that if all such discoveries are to be first announced in the pages of a peer-reviewed journal rather than to the general public through the media, then academia can truly be said to have disappeared up itself and forgotten whom it is supposed to be working on behalf of.  Public excitement about historical discoveries is a good thing and doesn't have to mean that appropriate academic rigour has been ignored.

To return to the discovery itself, the evidence for the conclusion does seem convincing:
  • The body was discovered within the confines of the Greyfriary which chroniclers state was Richard III's last resting place.
  • The body was buried without coffin or shroud, unusually for the time, prompting comparison with accounts that Henry VII buried his predecessor in a less than respectful fashion.
  • Radiocarbon dating puts the body between AD1455 and AD1540.
  • Skeletal analysis put the male as being in his late 20s or early 30s, and Richard III was 32 when he died.
  • The skeleton suffered from scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, which matches with physical (though often overplayed) descriptions of Richard III.
  • The skeleton displayed 10 separate injuries, including multiple head traumas, indicating a violent death.
  • Finally, DNA from the skeleton was matched to that from a known descendent of Richard III's sister
Although the veracity of the DNA evidence will no doubt prompt the most debate, it is easy to see from the weight of circumstantial evidence why the Leicester team feel so secure in their announcement.  The University has constructed an excellent website about the project here.

A decision seems to have already been made as to what will happen to the remains as Leicester Cathedral, next door to the burial site, will provide a more respectful final resting place.  It is interesting to note, however, that Richard III himself apparently wished to be buried in York.  It is an easy accusation to make, but it feels like the Leicester reburial may have more than a little to do with tourism, especially as a visitor centre is planned for the car park site.  As there is already an excellent visitor centre at the Bosworth Battlefield site and Richard III had no other connection with Leicester than that his corpse was unceremoniously dumped there, one does have to wonder a little at the long term sustainability of such a centre.  Hopefully, the long term implications of the centre have been fully thought through.

Another implication is the nature of his reburial.  I have heard that it will be a 'multi faith' service, but have no idea why.  Richard III was a Catholic, and so should surely be given a Catholic reburial.  I'm just waiting for someone to suggest that he should have a Church of England burial...

Addendum - 5 February 2013

Having now watched the Channel 4 documentary with the same title as this blog post, I can't help but add some additional comments to the above.

Telling the story of the project to discover the remains through footage filmed throughout the process, the documentary was ... interesting.  Presented by some chap I'm reliably informed is from the BBC Horrible Histories series, the programme quickly descended into a strange parody of a documentary as it became less and less about King Richard III, or even the archaeologists and their scientific techniques trying to find and identify him, but about one rather overly emotional woman - Phillipa Langley of the Richard III Society.

Now, I'm not going to start tearing into someone for being passionate about their particular historic interest, but it was clear that the whole premise of the programme was to watch her being dramatic in an attempt to give the whole thing a 'human' touch.  In essence this meant that the (rather interesting) archaeological evidence was reduced to being a series of things presented to her for her to (over)react to - sit down in disbelief, start crying, leave the room in shock etc.

The part when the remains were being removed from the site and ended up being covered in a flag was bizarre in the extreme, and I'm pleased to see the archaeologists (the wonderful Dr Jo Appleby in particular) took an ethical stand against this.  Imagine if the remains had turned out to be one of Henry VII's soldiers!  The fact that the flag-draped box was then placed among shovels and trowels in the back of a van was a piece of wonderful irony.

I've always thought that the Richard III Society positioned itself as an organisation looking to find out the truth behind the myth, whatever that truth may ultimately be, and that it is definitively not the 'Richard III Adoration Society'.  Sadly, that didn't come across, as both Phillipa and the Americans interviewed online came across as zealots for the cause, unable to accept any evidence that even remotely cast Richard III as anything less than angelic.  If I was a member of the Society I think I'd rather unhappy to be represented in such a way.  Have a viewpoint, fine, but please - remain rational and interpret the evidence impartially when its placed before you!

Hopefully another TV channel will at some point be allowed to revisit the discovery and actually produce something that is worthy of both the evidence and the archaeologists who have studied it.

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