And Richard it was

Richard III
University of Leicester

A press conference revealing research? To read some of the reactions, you’d think it was a panel of bankers explaining why our mortgages had to go up to pay for their bonuses.

Unsurprisingly, there was huge interest in the news about the car park dig in Leicester. Yet not everyone was happy about the way the study of Richard III’s remains was presented. It’s coming from both sides – arts (critics and historians) and science (focussing on the DNA analyses). Why couldn’t we have had a proper peer-reviewed academic process before any further information was released? The scientific research is incomplete. What’s the interest anyway? It’s not proper history, and doesn’t tell us anything new. And, of course, the real motivation is money: Leicester University needs the publicity.

Well. Where to start? There is a huge amount of information out there. (Did you hear? They held a press conference.) Still, it’s worth summarising what we know so far, to help some of the critics catch up. A good single source is the University of Leicester Press Office, and I got most of my info from there and a very good feature and diary of the dig at the university website (and of course there is a Wikipedia entry). Do skip the next few paragraphs if you think you know all this.

History: Lin Foxhall (Leicester)
Richard III was 32 when he died in in 1485, on the field of the Battle of Bosworth. Accounts of his death variously refer to a blow sufficiently severe as to embed his helmet in his skull, of shaving his head and of a death blow from a halberd. John Rous said in his History of England (completed in 1486) that Richard was buried among the Friars Minor (Franciscans) of Leicester in the choir of the church.

Rous wrote (in Latin) that Richard was “slight in body and weak in strength”. The Silesian Nicolas von Poppelau (who met and liked Richard III) wrote (in German) that he was “taller than himself, but a little slimmer and not so solid, also far leaner; he had delicate arms and legs”.

Rous also described Richard’s body as misshapen, with one shoulder higher than the other. Later descriptions elaborated this, culminating in Shakespeare’s Richard III who has a hunched back, a limp and a withered arm.

The car park on Tuesday
The car park on Tuesday
Note the infilled trench (the new tarmac) and the still open bit under the tent
Note the infilled trench (the dark new tarmac) and the still open bit under the tent

Excavation: Richard Buckley (University of Leicester Archaeological Services)
The site of the Grey Friars church was identified from a map drawn by Thomas Roberts in 1741, and confirmed by Deirdre O’Sullivan (University of Leicester) and another friary specialist. The Social Services Car Park and Alderman Newton’s School Playground were selected as accessible areas of that church. Ground-penetrating radar survey at three locations revealed little more than modern utilities (gas mains etc).

On the first day of excavation, in the car park, a human leg bone was found – described at the time as “a good find but not particularly surprising when excavating around a church”. Wall foundations and floors later confirmed the discovery of a church, and identified much of its plan. The burial cannot be more recent than 1538, the year of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The burial was in the choir (several other graves were uncovered, dating to “a much earlier period of the friary’s history”, but not excavated as they did not relate to the project’s purpose). The grave appeared hastily dug, and was not long enough so that the head was raised. There was no evidence for a coffin, shroud or clothing. The unusual disposition of the arms suggests the hands might have been tied.

Radiocarbon dating: Universities of Oxford (ORAU) and Glasgow (SUERC)
Replicated independent tests show the individual died between AD1450 and 1540 (95% probability), or 1475–1530 (69% confidence). The individual had a high protein diet – including significant amounts of seafood – suggesting high status.

Behind one of those panes, laid out on black velvet like Damien Hirst's diamond-studded skull, with security and chaplains, lie the remains of a former king of England
Behind one of those panes, laid out on black velvet like Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded skull, with security and chaplains, lie the remains of a former king of England

Osteology: Jo Appleby (Leicester)
The individual was male, in his late 20s to late 30s, with a gracile or feminine build. He had severe scoliosis (onset perhaps at puberty), causing him to stand up to 30cm (1 foot) lower than his full height of 1.72m (5 ft 8ins), and his right shoulder to be higher than the left. His arms were of similar size and used normally during life, and no evidence for a limp has been described.

Either of two significant blows to the back of the head from “a bladed weapon” would have led to almost instant loss of consciousness, and rapid death. Other injuries (to the head, a rib and the pelvis) may have occurred after or immediately before death, but are consistent with post mortem “insult wounds”, and are “likely to have been inflicted after armour had been removed from the body”. The face was undamaged.

Micro-CT: Professor Guy Rutty, (East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit, Leicester), Sarah Hainsworth (Materials Engineering, Leicester)
In what is said to be the first application of micro-computer X-ray tomography in an archaeological investigation, the wounds and scoliosis can be studied in great detail. No specific results yet described.

Genealogy: Kevin Schürer (Leicester), David Annal (formerly the National Archives), Morris Bierbrier (Fellow of the Society of Genealogists)
The maternal link between Anne of York (Richard III’s sister) and Michael Ibsen’s mother Joy has been confirmed, with documentary evidence for every link in the chain. A second living maternal descendant (not royal) was found: “again with solid documentary evidence for every step of the way”.

Turi King faces the press review process
Turi King faces the press review process

DNA analysis: Turi King (Leicester), Gloria Gonzales Fortes (York), Patricia Balaresque and Laure Tonasso (Toulouse)
There is a match between fossil mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton’s teeth, and the two direct descendants of Richard III on the female line; the mitochondrial DNA sequence is “relatively rare”. The modern DNA work was conducted at the University of Leicester, the ancient DNA analysis at the University of York, independently verified at the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse.

Future work. The skeleton’s DNA may be compared to those of descendants down the male line. Analysis is complete of the DNA of a “number of the men identified as descendants of Edward III through his son John of Gaunt ­– who would both have shared the same Y chromosome as Richard III”. Turi King reports “a consensus Y chromosome type of these individuals”. Preliminary DNA work has confirmed that the skeleton is of a male, so analysis of the Y chromosome should be possible.


Putting the R in Car Park. Leicester Mercury
Putting the R in Car Park. Leicester Mercury

So, there’s a lot of stuff we now know about “skeleton 1”, found on the first day of the dig under a white R painted on the tarmac (apparently the only one there, and not in a parking space), where the determined Philippa Langley “had the strongest sensation that I was walking on Richard’s grave”.

There are two things that make me happy to say – as I did to the Associated Press – that as much as we can ever prove anything, these remains are those of Richard III. First is the evidence I’ve summarised above. But there’s a second, important reason. A lot of people have been working on this project, and continue to do so. Everything I’ve seen so far gives me confidence that as a group, they are working together well, trust each other, and are driven by the thrill of science and the urge to solve problems. I’ve seen no grandstanding of egos, no point scoring against colleagues, no sensationalising, no playing to the media.

You may think all that irrelevant. Well, I’ve been around a long time in this business, both as a research archaeologist and as a journalist, and I’ve seen plenty of those things – and they matter. They can interfere with academic research, they can lead to futile projects and they can produce unsubstantiated claims. Just one person in a large team can mess it all up. This isn’t the place to give examples of bad practice, but I’ll give one of good. The AHOB project, a huge conglomeration of research scientists from around the world that is now coming to an end, was aimed at better understanding the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain. It cost millions, and produced many academic publications, with more to come, and many very significant discoveries. And, despite the occasional press junket, it was distinguished by a strong desire just to know more, energised by the knowledge that it really was changing the way we understand the past. And when it happens like that, you trust it.

I trust the Leicester team and its colleagues outside the university.

One of the complaints has been the lack of peer review. Mary Beard was put off by “the priority of the media over peer review”. “This is a complicated bit of scientific analysis”, she writes, “being given its first outing in a Press Conference… DNA evidence is tricky and any scientist would want their results peer evaluated before going completely public.” Any scientist? I can’t say, having met some at the press conference, that I sensed much resentment against the process. But the classical historian was not alone with her concern.

Charlotte Higgins (whose book on Roman Britain we await with interest)  was concerned that “the findings have been published in a peer-reviewed journal rather than just announced in a press conference” (“the bone evidence is clearly circumstantial… though I can’t claim to know enough about DNA evidence to understand what the margin of error is here”). Science correspondent Alok Jha, also at the Guardian, was similarly concerned: “because the results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, it might be worth throwing in a little scepticism”. Nature newsblog saw a “twitter of discontent among scientists who are wondering why the university publicised the discovery before putting the data out for peer review”.

Others just questioned what the fuss was about. Why the interest? We haven’t learnt anything new or important. The only explanation is that the university wants publicity – more grants, more sponsorship, more students. “What possible difference is the discovery and identification of this skeleton going to make to anything?”, says classicist Neville Morley. His answer? “It’s all about money”.

In the real world, where most of us live, money matters. Universities do need to raise it, and whether the funds come through enlightened despots throwing around their cash, public-minded governments, philanthropists, parents or commercial activities, there has always been a general assumption that research and teaching (at least in our culture) are largely independent – and academia has had centuries to learn how to maintain that position.

Also in the real world, peer review, while important, is not perfect. Perhaps archaeology is unique, but in my experience there is no doubt that reviewed papers are published that should not have been, that the process is subject to academic fashion, and that individuals or groups occasionally use peer review as a way of blocking competitors’ work. Reviewers, the best of whom are the busiest, do not get paid and do not get public reward for their work – it can be easy to skim a paper and err on the side of doubt, to the benefit of authors. Relying too much on paper trails has messed up the National Health Service. This must not happen to academic research.

And is the difference between a press conference and an academic presentation necessarily so complete? It is common for archaeologists to present their work at lectures to learned societies while it is still in progress. Colleagues want to know about it, and researchers appreciate feedback – and it allows them to mark out their territory, gain publicity and add to their CVs, all recognised strategies.

For example, the Society of Antiquaries has a weekly lecture programme. Tomorrow as I write, David Gibson is talking about the extraordinary finds at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire. That will be popular. But it is not peer reviewed.

Which leads me to a curious blog by Catherine Fletcher, lecturer in public history at the University of Sheffield. She says quite positive things about the research and the archaeologists, but then adds, “releasing results directly to the media before their publication in learned journals is a new trend. The approach of Cern in the quest for the Higgs boson has been influential here. Universities have realised that media interest generates publicity and with it – they hope – cash.”

Well. She must know what she is talking about given her job title, so I can only imagine that history as an academic subject is behind on this one compared to archaeology – well over a century behind.

As long as it has existed (which isn’t that long), archaeology has caught the public imagination, and archaeologists have wanted to tell the public what they are doing. Mortimer Wheeler, who did much to shape our profession in the 1930s and 40s, was famous for putting publicity before peer review: his great excavation at Maiden Castle was on the front page of the Daily Mail before it was reported in the Antiquaries Journal, and people queued to pay to see the trenches.

In 1859 (as our exhibition at the Wellington Arch, which opened today, explains), two antiquarians made a momentous discovery in a French quarry that was to change the course of archaeological research and our understanding of humanity. They rushed back to London with their find, and proceeded (with like-minded colleagues) to address one learned society after another – hotly pursued by the press. The world knew about it all before the peer-reviewed papers were out, and the world believed them: like the archaeologists in Leicester, they presented their case clearly, with the evidence to back it up.

Now how does an academic lecture – or rather a session of such talks – differ from Monday’s conference in Leicester? Introducing the line-up, Richard Taylor, deputy registrar at the University of Leicester, said that all this will be published in peer-reviewed journals – not a promise I often hear at learned societies (or indeed one that is always fulfilled). Six specialists then talked about their respective fields, starting with Richard Buckley on the archaeology, with pictures on a screen. At major presentations at the Antiquaries, selected people in the audience are pre-warned that they will be asked for comment. So in Leicester, we had prepared reactions from six people, followed – as at the Antiquaries – by questions from the floor.

If that sounds like an academic conference, it was like an academic conference. The major difference was that Leicester was better than a typical group of talking academics. We had no text-filled PowerPoint slides to show the speaker’s mind was switched off. Everyone talked clearly, in good English, to the point and to time. Each presentation followed logically from its predecessor, and they added up to a coherent story that was brought to a conclusion by Buckley – at an academic meeting we would more likely have been treated to a series of unconnected talks under a theme heading whose meaning might itself have been a topic of specialist investigation. At which point, to my astonishment, there was a whoop and applause from the audience, something you’re even less likely to hear from journalists than from academics. We were enjoying ourselves.

A cheer from the crowd. University of Leicester
A cheer from the crowd. University of Leicester

Now none of this matters a jot if the conference was all presentation and no content. But we were being shown a substantial research project that was a case study in how archaeology works at its best, from questioning and planning, to fieldwork, analyses and conclusion. The distinct but linked strands of research were given to us in one go, so their joint impact on the questions could be evaluated. Peer-reviewed publication will take longer, and will see those strands unravelled, as different journals and different research lines complete at different speeds. Armed only with those, the media would make it look more confusing, reporting some of the studies and not others, with differing emphases, and – a key point – the public would be less well served.

And, this is the rub, so would academia. Asking specialists to address a wider audience, during their research, forces them to think beyond the narrow confines of their immediate tasks, to see the bigger picture. It demands that they communicate in clear language, which means they have to think clearly. It encourages them (though in this case I doubt such incentive was needed) to work together, not competitively. And it asks them to think very hard about what they are going to say. For if they get it wrong, they surely will be fried.

Sometimes the peers in the street are the ones that matter most.

2 thoughts on “And Richard it was

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