Monday, 4 February 2013

A wonderful day for archaeology


This morning I watched the quite extraordinary press conference called by the archaeologists of Leicester University in which they explained how they now know that this skeleton, found under a city car park, was, beyond all doubt, that of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, killed on Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485. They walked soberly through the evidence – carbon-dating, osteo analysis, DNA capture from the bones and from known descendants, to construct an overwhelmingly convincing account of the man, his physique, his wounds and his manner of death in battle. The shiver of touching the past.

He had been wounded in ten places. His skull had been grievously injured – probably Richard lost his helmet.

Base of Richard III's skull
The major wounds are to the base of the skull, either side of the spine, and would have been caused by heavy bladed weapons. His body was subsequently mutilated after death, tossed naked onto a horse and dumped in a rough grave in  the now vanished church of Greyfriars. Richard III, ‘deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before my time/Into this breathing world, scarce half made up’ - Shakespeare’s hunchback - did indeed have a curvature of the spine.

 Skeleton laid out horizontally

It was all incredibly moving. We were reminded by the canon of Leicester Cathedral, that this is not just a historically gripping discovery. It concerns the remains of a human being. Richard will be reburied in the cathedral.

Archaeology is a Cinderella profession in these cash-strapped times but this was an astonishing testimony to its ability to bring all the tools of scientific analysis to unlock the past. For the men and women who talked at the press conference – and for the hundreds of hours of patient analysis by them and many others in universities and laboratories across Britain – this must have been a crowning moment in their professional lives.


  1. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal. A essay on the WSJ Commentary Page. A long article in my hometown Minneapolis newspaper. Even political blogs. All focused on the discovery of the remains of Richard III. I understand why the English should be so interested, the success of modern archaeology, and newspaper reports but am surprised at the headline attention in the USA.

  2. See my latest post on this. I think our attitudes to it are fittingly medieval!