As most of you know by now, there were some exciting developments last week in the search for the grave of Richard III! When I last wrote about it on the Sunday news round-up of September 9, the archaeological team had confirmed that they had received an additional week to dig in light of their discoveries.
Here’s a timeline of relevant events prior to the 21st century [Source]:
* Richard III was buried in the church in 1485 after the defeat at Bosworth and a tomb was erected over the grave ten years later.
* In 1538, Greyfriars was closed during the Dissolution and by the early 17th century the church had fallen into ruin.
* In 1600 the Mayor of Leicester, Robert Herrick, bought the site and had a house built, with a memorial pillar of Richard III’s grave erected in the garden.
* The land was sold in the early 18th century to Thomas Novle and then is sold to the Leicester city council in 1914, who paved over the land for a car park in 1940.
Archaeologists confirmed that they had found the remains of the Greyfriars Church and the 17th century garden that contained the memorial pillar. They then extended the three trenches in hopes of finding the choir area of the church which is thought to be where Richard was buried. (I once again recommend this BBC article for a background on the historical detective work that lead to the dig and, now very importantly, the genealogy work that found a descendant of Richard III’s sister Anne of York for DNA testing.)
Unbeknownst to the public at the time, human remains had been found at the site and on September 4th exhumation began. On September 11 (in my time zone) news had leaked about the remains and that there would be a press conference at 11 a.m. UK time on Wednesday September 12th with details. At the time I was excited by the possibilities, but I knew that finding human remains while digging in a church site wasn’t that unexpected. But I was very curious to hear what they had to say. Given that they were putting together a press conference, I was thinking that they might have some additional evidence that they might have actually found Richard III – and that turned out to be the case!
Here’s a summary of the findings that point to the potential of this being Richard III’s skeleton [Source]:
1. The remains – a fully articulated skeleton – appear to be of an adult male.
2. The skeleton was found in what is believed to be the choir of the church, the area reported in the historical record as the burial place of King Richard III.
3. The back of the skull appears to have suffered a significant injury consistent with a blow from a bladed implement.
4. A barbed iron arrowhead was found between vertebrae of the upper back.
5. The skeleton has spinal abnormalities – probably severe scoliosis, which would have made the right shoulder appear higher than the left. The skeleton does not have kyphosis – ie. the man did not have the feature sometimes inappropriately known as a ‘hunchback’.
The spinal evidence, along with wounds on the skeleton that could have come from battle, is very provocative. And thanks to the historical detective work of Dr John Ashdown-Hill we have something to test DNA against! The first step is to get a viable sample from the skeletal remains to test with, which I personally believe they will be successful in doing. (If DNA can be extracted from Neanderthals, I think there is cause to be optimistic in this case!)
You can watch a video of the September 12 press conference here:
In response to the large popular interest the dig site will be open to the public again for several weekends and some of the objects from the dig will be on display nearby. More information is available here: Richard III dig: Open days to mark discovery at Greyfriars site in Leicester
Even though the DNA results won’t be in for a couple of months, discussion has already begun on where and how Richard III should be re-buried if the skeleton is confirmed to be his. The initial announcement I read was that he would be interred in Leicester Cathedral, where there is already a memorial slab for the king. Personally I feel this is the best place, being the cathedral closest to where Richard had been buried for over 500 years. But I understand the arguments for York Minster and Westminster Abbey (where his wife Anne Neville is buried). Regardless of where the remains end up, if the skeleton is positively identified as Richard III, it will be a monumental achievement of historical and scientific detective work!