The Smithsonian Channel is airing a documentary on the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton. I caught The King’s Skeleton: Richard III Revealed last night. You can watch it next on Saturday, April 27th at 5:00 PM, and on Sunday, April 28th at 10:00 AM.
Even though it was advertised as “new,” I assumed when I saw it on the schedule that it was The King in the Carpark, the documentary that aired on Channel Four in the UK the day of the announcement. I think in substance it is the same documentary, but there have been some changes made for a US audience. The only one I can identify for sure, not having seen the UK version, is that the narrator is American. If anybody has seen them both, I’d love to hear of any other differences you detected.
The cameras follow Simon Farnaby, a comedic actor and writer I’ve never heard of before whose sole tenuous relevance to this story that I could determine is that he’s from York. Anyway he seems to be the Greek chorus, our stand-in of ignorant wonder to whom the archaeologists, historians and scientists explain things in lieu of addressing the viewer directly. He also serves to hold Philippa Langley’s hand, metaphorically and literally, whenever she hyperventilates.
Much of the story of the dig, discovery and analysis is known to me now, but there were still some interesting surprises in the documentary. For instance, the team noted at the February press conference that the skeleton was actually found on first day, but they didn’t get into the details of that. The documentary shows the discovery, how those leg bones are the first thing found at the dig, how they’re covered back up to wait for future information since at that point they have no idea if they’d even found the Greyfriars church and priory yet.
Thirteen days later, all three trenches have been dug and archaeologists are able to determine from the artifacts that this was the Greyfriars site and the layout of the structures. Once the floorplan is clear, they return to those skeletal legs because they now realize that they are buried in the east of the church under the choir, which was exactly where Richard III was thought to have been buried.
Fun fact: after they cover the bones back up on day one, storm clouds quickly gather and it began to rain. Philippa Langley thinks that’s downright eerie. Rain in England at the end of August? It feels like a message from Richard, donchaknow. Certainly not an entirely expected minor weather event seen every day. Certainly not that.
Another interesting bit is when Simon visits a historian who shows him a couple of paintings of Richard and how they were tampered with, Medieval Photoshop style, by Tudor artists to make Richard look freaky. They added curves to one shoulder to make him look hunchbacked, narrowed his eyes, even carved his thumb to a point so it looks like he has a demon claw rather than regular human fingers.
Meanwhile, back at the dig they bring the earth movers in to extend the first trench crosswise at the place where the leg bones were found. The original trench isn’t wide enough to expose the rest of the skeletal remains, so the machines have to peel off more pavement and modern layers of soil while the precious legs bones were just beneath them. It’s amazing how delicate heavy machinery can be.
Next up is bone specialist Joe Appleby who takes over in her Outbreak suit to do the careful excavation that will hopefully reveal the rest of the skeleton. Yay she finds a skull! Oops, she found it when she drove her pickaxe through it. It’s cool, though, because the skull is at a weird angle compared to the legs so it’s probably not from the same skeleton.
Twist! Yes it is! The weird angle, Joe finds, is due to the marked curvature of the spine. She calls in Simon and Philippa to show them what she’s found, and Philippa loses the ability to stand when she sees that s-curve in the spine. She has to sit down on a mudpile because that’s one of her biggest bugaboos: Richard couldn’t have been a hunchback because how could he have worn armour and fought?
Then Joe makes her feel better. At least there’s no evidence that his right arm was withered, she tells Philippa. Philippa replies: “Some good news them.” Yes, finally some good news after the tragic discovery of a skeleton with scoliosis in the location where Richard III was buried.
The bones are bagged and sent to the lab for the long process of analysis. The skull goes to Turi King because she’s going to attempt DNA extraction from the teeth. You see her removing one of them, but the narration uses the plural so she had to remove more than one, clean them and grind them into powder in order to get any DNA out of them. That answers the question of whether the tooth loss visible in the skull was pre, peri or postmortem.
The DNA results are going to take months, so off goes Simon to York to talk about how Richard was perceived by the locals. Spoiler: they liked him.
Back at the lab again, we get to see the process of identifying the metal object that was found between two of the skeleton’s vertebrae. The researcher X-rayed the piece, compared it to arrows of Richard’s time and ultimately determines that it’s not an arrowhead but a pre-existing nail, possibly Roman, that just happened to wind up in the burial.
So finally it’s time for the full osteological presentation. Philippa, Simon, Joe Appleby and Dr. Pierce Mitchell (specialist in deformities) meet over the bones. Mitchell says he would have been a hunchback with one shoulder higher than the other. Philippa freaks. Out. She can’t stay in the room anymore because she can’t deal with seeing him laid out like that with his glaring scoliotic spine making a mockery of her years of dedication to the idea that the only deformity in Richard was projected onto him posthumously by Tudor propagandists. Simon has to go out and pet her for a while to validate her tender feelers.
When they return, Mitchell points out that when he calls him a hunchback, he just means in the colloquial sense of someone with a spinal deformity. He didn’t actually have a hump on his back. When he was clothed, it would only look like one was shoulder slightly higher than the other.
Things get weird again when the facial reconstruction is complete. Philippa, led by Simon, enters the room with her eyes closed. She opens them to behold the reconstructed face of Richard III. “Doesn’t look the face of a tyrant. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t. It’s like you could just talk to him. Have a conversation right now.” She does not lean in for a kiss, but that’s the level of vibe we’re talking about here. There’s a reason they didn’t leave her alone with him.
The show concludes with the DNA results. Adorably, Turi King takes Michael Ibsen to a private room to share the results with him first, because he’s family. Then she tells Simon and Philippa and there is much subdued English rejoicing.
My final verdict is that it’s definitely worth watching just to see the discovery unfold the way it did. It’s lighter on the science and archaeology than I would have liked, but I was steeled for that by the many excellent comments y’all left on the Richard blog entries.
A positive final note: there are no cheeseball reenactments of historical events. When historians and the narrator are talking about Richard’s rise to throne, his life, the princes in the tower, the Battle of Bosworth, his death, the descriptions are accompanied with a stylized, highly atmospheric animation. The art is kind of great and there are some excellent ravens involved. I really enjoyed the animations. Whoever did that needs to make a feature-length movie of the life and death of Richard III.
Edit: Here’s an animated telling of Shakespeare’s Richard III courtesy of WandaSusie which is very similar, if not identical, in style. I can’t tell if it’s the exact same animation as figures in the documentary, though.