Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Possible Burial of King Richard III

I've been wondering whether or not to post about the possible discovery of the burial of King Richard III. I very rarely let me work life encroach on to my blog (apart from the occasional Silent Sunday picture!), but in this case I am very keen to chronicle events as they unfold in my own words, mainly so that I can always look back at this exciting episode in my working life. And, given that I've spent the last two days standing by the trench, explaining the Medieval church and human remains found therein to anyone that passes by, I don't think it is unfair of me to want to share that same information with my lovely blog followers.


Nice view down the cloister, with the cloister wall to the right of the trench

The University of Leicester Archaeological Service have been digging on the site of the Greyfriars Franciscan Friary in Leicester. They spent three weeks excavating the site over three trenches and were able to confirm the postulated locations of a number of key areas - the Chapter House, cloister walk and garth and the choir of the Friary Church to name but a few. Excitingly, this has allowed us to clarify the orientation and the footprint of the Greyfriars church with relative certainty for the first time.


Image credit - University of Leicester
Last Friday, excavation work was completed on site. Leicester Arts and Museums staff have since held open days to explain the finds to the public. I was posted on the prime location at the northern end of Trench 1. This is a rough transcription of the information I have been delivering to the people of Leicester over the last couple of days and what I will be saying next weekend too!

The excavations uncovered the Choir of the church at the northern end of Trench 1. It was within this area that a fully articulated adult male skeleton was uncovered. This skeleton was aligned on an East-West orientation - along the same orientation as the church itself. The individual has been buried facing towards the altar of the church and therefore facing east - towards where Jesus Christ will be seen, heralding the Resurrection in Christian dogma. This is why Christian burials are always on an East-West alignment.

This male skeleton is buried in a significant part of the church, referred to as the 'walking place'.  This is where we would expect high status burials to be found, were people would walk over them, presumably to keep them in memory. There was no evidence of any kind of tomb, or coffin surrounding the burial. Archaeologists are postulating that this would have been a shrouded burial, but this is more a response to the absence of a coffin, rather than there being any physical evidence of a shroud being discovered so far.

Male articulated burial site. The top of the burial (skull) is delineated by the far yellow marker in this picture.

As outlined in last Tuesday's press release, there are five reasons why this burial is being treated as potentially interesting:
  1. The human remains were found in the choir of the Greyfriars church - this is where the historical record records the burial of King Richard III to have taken place.
  2. The human remains are those of a male. Another, disarticulated, burial was found in the choir area, but these remains have been proven to be female, therefore not those of Richard III.
  3. The male skeleton shows evidence of suffering from scoliosis. This is an s-shaped curvature of the spine which would have resulted in his right shoulder being noticeably higher than his left. This is in distinction to kyphosis sufferers, who suffer from an rounded curvature of the spine. This is usually the condition associated with the label of 'hunchback'. The idea of some sort of spinal deformity is in line with contemporary accounts of King Richard III.
  4. A barbed arrowhead was found in between the vertebrae of the skeleton. This may have entered the torso at any point and then fallen to its resting place between the vertebrae as decay took hold of the body. It is not embedded in the spine therefore not necessarily evidence that the individual was shot in the back. However, such an arrowhead could be conducive with the individual being injured on the battlefield.
  5. Finally, the skull has sustained serious injury at the back. These injuries are likely to have been inflicted by some sort of bladed weapon. Again, these injuries are conducive with injuries that could have been received on the battlefield.

So, is this the burial site of King Richard III? Time will tell. This evidence is undeniably very interesting. The skeleton is now being analysed and recorded by the University of Leicester. Thanks to the work of John Ashdown-Hill, a living descendant of the King has been traced who may be able to provide us with a DNA match. Failing that, we will move on to a balance of probabilities situation, looking at the evidence and deciding whether the identity of this skeleton can be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Other scientific analysis, such as radiocarbon dating, will certainly have its role to place.

Getting sunburnt by Trench 1 alongside the burial site. Thanks for the photo, Vicky!
Whatever the outcome, it is a great story - and I have been privileged to have been in a position to help tell that story to the people of Leicester at this time.

3 comments:

  1. Fascinating, and great to get a first hand account. I read elsewhere that John Leland mentioned a Knight called Mutton (who a Mayor of Leicester?) also buried here. I don't know anything about him other than that so no doubt the other points (the injuries) etc. rule him out as being this fellow but interesting stuff all the same.

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    1. Ha! That is interesting... I shall look out for Sir Mutton in my readings!

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