The University of Leicester archaeological team that found the skeletal remains of King Richard III has published its first peer-reviewed paper on the discovery in the journal Antiquity which has generously made the entire thing available in pdf form here. Co-authored by lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, Mathew Morris, osteoarchaeology expert Jo Appleby, geneticist Turi King, Deirdre O’Sullivan and historian Lin Foxhall, the paper presents the archaeological evidence unearthed at the site and the basic skeletal evidence for the body being that of King Richard III. Jo Appleby and Turi King will publish separate papers respectively focusing on the osteological evidence and the DNA evidence. There was grumbling from some in the scientific community at the time of the press conference reveal that peer-review should have come before the splashy announcement, so these papers are long-awaited.
The news stories about the paper are mainly interested in the new details it reveals about the grave, but before you even get to the report of the excavation, there’s all kinds of fascinating information about the background of the project, the history of the site and the layout and construction of the Grey Friars church. So this here is a rundown of the parts that stood out to me. Read the whole paper, though, because it’s a rare chance to have a scholarly publication allow free access and it’s eminently readable.
This excavation was an unusual collaboration that brought together amateur history buffs (Philippa Langley and the Richard III Society) with professional archaeologists and city officials. The Richard III lobbied for years to get the excavation done and they funded it; the University of Leicester archaeologists were willing to take the plunge despite the insane (from an academic perspective) dream underpinning the dig; the city was directly involved in that the council had to give up their parking lot for the excavation. This unique combination ensured the questions the excavation sought to answer would include a strong non-academic component.
What is somewhat different from the ways in which archaeological professionals and amateurs have generally worked together is that in this case the non-specialists played a role in shaping the intellectual frameworks of the project, although the final project design (including how questions could appropriately be asked of the evidence), and the execution of the project in practical terms remained in the hands of the archaeologists. Grey Friars offers a case study for addressing the issues of how to formulate multiple sets of research questions and aims, and how different kinds of partners can accommodate each other’s questions.
The tremendous, nearly unbelievable success of this collaboration may inspire future such endeavors. There are so many amateur historical societies, it doesn’t have to be something as dramatic as finding the missing remains of a king of England. I think it’s a cool prospect to see small, local subjects that aren’t likely to scare up much funding interest being investigated when passionate non-professionals work together with professionals and governmental authorities.
The paper goes into depth about what we can and can’t deduce about the structure of the church from the trenches dug. This was such a short excavation they only scratched the surface, but it’s still remarkable how much they found in three short trenches. For instance Trench 3 encountered a section of a buttress and a wall across that reveal the east end of the church where the choir was was a large, tall building 34 feet wide. Inside that structure archaeologists found three phases of flooring, steps, walls and three graves, one of which held a stone coffin.
None of the graves were excavated due to time constraints, but the archaeological team has applied for permission to return in July and exhume the stone sarcophagus. They believe they know who’s buried there: Sir William Moton, a knight who was buried at Grey Friars in 1362, 123 years before Richard’s death in 1485. They’ll also expand the dig onto the property of the former Alderman Newton Grammar School which is slated to become the new Richard III heritage center. Sir William’s tomb, assuming it is his, will be part of the new center.
An interesting piece of Reformation-era information: none of the graves found at Grey Friars showed any signs of having been disturbed during the dissolution of the monastery. The building was razed very thoroughly and much of its masonry appropriated probably to build new structures, but the destruction stopped at floor level. A little residual concern for the Catholic dead, perhaps?
An interesting piece of architectural information: stains of brick dust were found on the eastern end of the church that indicate the church may have been constructed or faced in brick.
This would have given the building a striking appearance, with off-white limestone tracery windows framed in red brick; quite a contrast to the pale grey sandstone walls of the cloistral buildings. If the eastern end of the church was partially built of brick, this would place it among the earliest medieval brick buildings in Leicestershire.
Now on to the burial details. Unlike the other graves unearthed in Trench 3, Richard’s grave in Trench 1 is too short and irregularly dug. It’s a lozenge shape with a scooped concave base and sloping sides, not a clean vertical-sided rectangle. It’s not a poverty issue, although by the time of the dissolution the handful of Franciscan monks remaining at Grey Friars subsisted entirely on alms. The much poorer parish church in Leicester has neatly dug graves of proper size with coffins.
Because the grave was too short, the body was placed on one side of the grave, its torso pressing against the northern side. This was probably because the body was handed by one man down to another man standing in the grave and taking up space. The position of the body and legs suggest there was no shroud or coffin keeping the limbs swaddled together, nor where there any remains of clothing, jewelry, any adornments.
It seems his nude body was lowered into the grave feet first and then torso and head which is why his head was propped up against the side of the grave and was so much higher than the body that Jo Appleby thought it was from a different skeleton at first. The hands were crossed at the wrist and placed awkwardly above the right pelvis. This may have been how the diggers arranged him after burial, but given that there is no evidence that they took the time to arrange his body at all, it’s more likely that his wrists were bound when he was interred. The hastiness of this procedure makes sense when you remember that by the time it was buried, Richard’s abused body had been on public display for days. In August. He cannot have been a pleasant sight or smell.
If you have the chance, the University of Leicester is hosting a Richard III Family Open Day on June 29th. There are kid-friendly family activities, and best of all, nerd-friendly nerdy activities like three hour drop-in sessions at the Genetics and Archaeology Departments, multi-disciplinary mini-lectures like “What Were the Chances of Finding Richard III?” delivered by the Math Department, and “Richard III in History and Drama” by the School of English. The keynote lecture will be three blissful hours of Professor Lin Foxhall talking about “The Discovery of Richard III.”
I wanna gooooooo.