thinking about archaeology

Archive for January, 2014

En route for Easter Island


A century ago today, the Mana, an auxiliary schooner captained by Scoresby Routledge, stewarded by his wife Katherine and crewed by a collection of English seamen, fishermen, scientists and the odd Royal Navy lieutenant, had just been hauled up onto a floating deck in Talcahuano on the Chilean coast. They were nearly a year into their voyage. While the ship was being cleaned and checked, they collected supplies sent from England and divided up the stores to last for a six-month stay on Easter Island, their ultimate goal. In the meantime, Scoresby and Katherine took the Trans-Andine railway to Valparaiso. They visited Williamson & Balfour (owners of the island lease) and the Company for the Exploitation of Easter Island in Valparaiso, and studied the Easter Island collection in Santiago museum.

They sighted the island on March 29. Caught up in Pacific repercussions of the first world war, in the event they were to remain there for nearly 17 months.

One of the many things Katherine Routledge achieved during that stay, was to study the petroglyphs and stone houses at the south-west tip of the island. One of those houses had been where Hoa Hakananai’a, the beautiful statue depicted in today’s Google doodle – albeit in a rather paunchy version – was standing when found and taken by a Royal Navy crew in 1868. She also recorded details about the island’s birdman ceremony.

We found both of these studies offered critical evidence for understanding Hoa Hakananai’a, which we incorporated in the analysis of our new 3D digital survey. Peer-reviewed articles about our project have now been accepted, and we hope will appear later this year.

Dundas drawings

As drawn by Lieutenant Colin Dundas, when Hoa Hakananai’a was on board HMS Topaze in 1868

Marble statue in the Great Court, made in Italy AD1–50

Marble statue in the Great Court, made in Italy AD1–50

man on horse

Hoa Hakananai'a, now in Room 24, Living and Dying, just off the Great Court

Hoa Hakananai’a, now in Room 24, Living and Dying, just off the Great Court

What’s in store for Richard III in 2014?

Digging for Richard

One small dig made 2013 an extraordinary year for British archaeology. Yet 2014 may bring even more to interest those following the Richard III story. It’s been seven months since I wrote the second of my two main blogs about the excavation (And Richard it was, Feb 6, and The peers in the car park, May 29). After that, I had a fascinating (and very busy) time talking to many of those involved in the project, and my book about it all comes out in May – more on that later. First, let’s catch up.

Richard III statue in Leicester, soon to be moved

There can be no doubting the international interest. Look at this list of 2013 lists:

Archaeology magazine top 10 discoveries of 2013, no 1: Richard III

Fox News (Live Science) 10 best science stories of 2013, no 1: Richard III rediscovered

Live Science 10 coolest archaeology discoveries of 2013, no 1: Richard III bones

NBC News year in science, five leading themes no 1: DNA unravels history’s mysteries, leading with Richard III

International Business Times top ten archaeological finds of 2013, no 1: King Richard III Grave

Heritage Daily top 10 archaeological discoveries for 2013, no 1: University of Leicester announces discovery of King Richard III

Discover Magazine top 100 stories of 2013, no 64: Skeleton of King Richard III found in England

BBC News, Year in digs: How 2013 looked in archaeology, lead story: The king in the car park

Metro newspaper 2013 news quiz, first question: Who is Michael Ibsen?

Observer science quiz no 22: In which country was Michael Ibsen born?

Times news quiz of the year 2013: Richard III’s long winter of discontent has ended, the toppled King made glorious at last in the sun of a Leicester car park. Why is a new Plantagenet Alliance fighting on his behalf? [See below…]

Observer 12 faces of 2013: Philippa Langley

Guardian people who made headlines in 2013: Mathew Morris

BBC News magazine super-shared stories of 2013, includes: Scientists confirmed a skeleton buried under a car park in Leicester was that of English king Richard III

Charlie Brooker’s 2013 Wipe on BBC2 featured the announcement of Richard III’s identification.

Leicester University Press Office: Ather Mirza (centre) with Mark Cardwell (left) and Peter Thorley

This is why I’ve called the find a Tutankhamun for our times: not because there was any treasure involved (or for any information the dig might bring us), but because of the relentless media pressure for new stories, driven by a public eager for insights into everything from the state of Richard III’s teeth to the personal lives of archaeologists (for those who don’t work in media, the University of Leicester Press Office’s collation of comments offers striking evidence of how unusual this all was). The physical remains do what archaeology always does, which is to offer a tangible link to the past, making its presence felt in our own lives: but unusually, the discoveries do this with a charismatic and puzzling known individual, made celebrity by history, Shakespeare and more. The mix has taken us into new territory: we learn more about archaeology, and ourselves, as every month passes. So what next?



First up, we are still – as you would expect – waiting for most of the research results to be published. Leicester University was extremely free with detailed information about the dig early in 2013. Its website remains a mine of information, though relatively little about the archaeology has been added since last March. The Richard III Society’s website too has much information, naturally stronger on history than archaeology, and keeping up with events.

Scientific studies of the finds continue. There was a bigger dig at the site in July (described in a blog – to follow in order, you read part 2, then part 1; British Archaeology reported on this in the Nov/Dec 2013 edition). Three more burials were excavated, including that of an older woman, who had been encased in a lead coffin and a fine outer stone coffin – clearly an important medieval figure, though unidentified. The tentative layout of the friary church was confirmed, and remains of a new building, possibly an earlier church, were also found. Pieces of stone tracery believed in 2012 to be medieval turned out to be Victorian demolition rubble, from alterations to the adjacent school.

Excavation in 2013, Richard's grave protected with fresh sand

Excavation in 2013, Richard’s grave protected with fresh sand

Following the Antiquity article in May, we had one peer-reviewed paper, in September, a very specific study of soil samples from around the skeleton. These revealed that Richard was infected with roundworms:

“The intestinal parasites of King Richard III”, by Piers Mitchell, Hui-Yuan Yeh, Jo Appleby & Richard Buckley, The Lancet, Vol 382, issue 9895, page 888 (2013).

The paucity of further material (perfectly normal for a research project at this stage) is emphasised by a curious article published in the British Dental Journal in April. It’s written by one A Rai, identified only by email and mobile phone number, and looks superficially like a peer-reviewed article. Perhaps it is. But the information on Richard’s teeth comes from Leicester University’s website and press releases, and I understand that Rai has not seen any of the remains. I can’t help but wonder what the point of it is.

I understand further peer-reviewed articles have been written and are awaiting publication – in the meantime, their contents will be embargoed, and we depend on journal schedules. Work continues on the main project, the excavation, analysis and publication of the friary.

We had two books on the story in 2013.

First came The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III, by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones (October). Reviewers preferred Jones’s chapters (“measured, reasonable and elegantly written… sound history”, Sunday Times) to Langley’s (“much madder”, Sunday Times; “the idea that there is a cabal of historians trying to foist some Tudor caricature of Richard on an unsuspecting public is baffling”, Guardian; “sentimental, special pleading codswallop”, Sunday Express). The book is an insight into why Langley wanted to find Richard’s remains, revealing how the discovery and resultant new information had no apparent impact on her views.

Mathew Morris and Richard Buckley’s Richard III: The King Under the Car Park followed in November. This is a well illustrated paperback that puts the story of the 2012 dig and study of the remains into the contexts of Greyfriars and medieval Leicester, written by the two men who directed the excavation. It packs much information into its 64 pages.


Memorial plaque in Leicester Cathedral: this view will look very different if Richard's remains are reburied here

Memorial plaque in Leicester Cathedral: this view will look very different if Richard’s remains are reburied here

The biggest fuss, however, has been about the proposed reburial. The archaeologists and the Richard III Society seem to have kept largely out of it, which is wise. For the debate has often been ignorant and unseemly, and sometimes deeply disrespectful.

The issue is not whether or not the king’s remains should be interred (I’m quite sure many people would like to look at them), but where. In August a lobby group which would see the bones buried in York – apparently unconcerned that York Minster has itself said they should be buried in Leicester – was granted permission to bring judicial review proceedings against the Ministry of Justice and the University of Leicester.

The Plantagenet Alliance Ltd (PA), an obscure organisation calling itself “living, collateral descendants of King Richard III” and “his Majesty’s representatives and voice”, asked that the bones be “returned” to York. It backed a UK government e-petition for “Richard III to be re-interred at York Minster”. Some weight was put on the fact that the York petition had more votes than a similar one urging burial in Leicester (“Keep Richard III remains in Leicester”). However, when these closed (York on September 24 and Leicester on October 12), Leicester had shot ahead –  31,300 for York, 34,300 for Leicester – so understandably the PA dropped that line.

North wall of Leicester Cathedral

Reserved parking spaces on the north wall of Leicester Cathedral

There have been several other reburial petitions:

King Richard III should have a state funeral & buried at Westminster Abbey.

Bury King Richard III in Gloucester Cathedral.

King Richard III to be re-interred at Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire.

Richard III to be re-interred in Lancaster.

Burial of King Richard the III at a catholic burial site.

Service and Burial of King Richard III should be held in a Roman Catholic church or Cathedral.

Richard III should be reinterred at Arundel R.C Cathedral. read this and see if you can deny.

The City of Leicester should be allowed to keep the remains of Richard III.

If the bones found in Leicester are proved to be Richard III they should be reintured at Leicester Cathedral.

Richard III remains to be interred at Priory Street Centre car park, York (28 votes for this one so far).

Richard III to be re-interred in York Minster

(note the “in”; this took 600 votes from the “at” version, though Leicester would still have won if “at” had them all).

This puts me in mind of the Times, which also had difficulty in making up its mind. The newspaper opted in two leaders for two places: Westminster Abbey (Loser’s justice, February 4), and Leicester (Royal rumpus, November 27).

The fact is (if you hadn’t already guessed where this is going), there can be no simple answer to where Richard III’s remains should be buried, if you ignore standard procedure, which would have them buried near to where they were found – which happens to be Leicester Cathedral, just across the street. Despite widespread belief, historians have found no evidence as to what Richard III would have wished, and they are unlikely to do so. There are essentially two choices: Leicester (as convention would determine), or anywhere in the world (to be determined by whim).

Friar Lane, Leicester

Friar Lane, Leicester

Nonetheless, on August 15 Mr Justice Haddon-Cave supported the PA’s wish for judicial review proceedings. Despite the belief of some and the PA’s expressed hope, however, this was not to challenge the case for reburial in Leicester. In granting the excavation licence, said Haddon-Cave, the secretary of state for justice had not consulted “relevant interests”.

Which begs the question, whose interests are relevant? Collateral descendants, responds the PA, narrowing it down a bit to between one and 17 million people scattered around the UK and the world (almost all of whom, says Kevin Schürer, pro-vice chancellor at the University of Leicester and responsible for genealogical research in the Richard III project, will not know they are descendants: they would need to be identified and tracked down).

We are entering Alice in Wonderland territory. With so many collateral descendants, the select number in the PA, who I think we can safely guess have not consulted their fellow relatives, have no evidence on which to base a claim that they represent the larger group. Yet the judicial review which they achieved is being held because the decision to bury the remains in Leicester was supposedly taken by an unrepresentative group of people.

Selling sunglasses in Leicester

Selling sunglasses in Leicester

Haddon-Cave argued that the Ministry of Justice should have consulted on the future of the remains before granting the excavation licence. The University of Leicester applied for the licence on August 31 2012. At that point, no remains had been excavated. The request was to dig up six sets. So, according to Haddon-Cave, there should have been a public consultation on six groups of human remains, before they had been identified, or even excavated – indeed, five of them had not even been found. But that’s not all: any licence granted should have been re-visited once it became clear that Richard III’s grave had been found.

Suppose this had been a more typical urban excavation, in which a much larger area had been opened up, and the best part of the friary cemetery had been found. The archaeologists are waiting to dig, and a developer is waiting to move in and build. But first, consultations need to be conducted on the future of 200 graves whose contents are completely unknown. As the principle is consultation before we know what’s in a grave, this would apply on every archaeological excavation across the UK – not to mention industrial cemetery clearances.

The Plantagenet Alliance first made itself known after the 2012 excavation and preliminary research were completed; it cares a lot about where the remains are reburied, but appears to have little interest in the research and has not, I am told, contributed any funds. Linked names include Charles Brunner, of Kansas, USA, and Stephen Nicolay, who has described himself as “a former field archaeologist of some 20 years”, who had “probably exhumed 10–15 Roman individuals” (a typical professional archaeologist who had worked in the field that long, would wonder, how come so few?).

Originally set for November 26, the judicial review was adjourned (Annette Carson gives a useful summary of the day’s proceedings) and now takes place this year on March 13 and 14, in London. In August last year it was revealed that the university had by then spent £28,000 on legal advice, and the Ministry of Justice £8,000 (a total of almost exactly twice the Richard III Society’s contribution to the cost of the 2012 dig); regardless of the review’s outcome, UoL and MoJ are to pay costs.

One of many street signs in Leicester commemorating Bosworth and Richard III

One of many street signs in Leicester commemorating Bosworth and Richard III

Other things coming up in 2014:

The reburial itself (perhaps). Originally planned for Leicester in the spring, the grand event would appear to have been delayed by the judicial review. The Bishop of Leicester recently said he still believes it will happen in his cathedral, but last November Matthew Howarth, representing the PA from the Yorkshire law firm Gordons, said the review will not be over by August this year. Leicester City Council did not help, appearing to part with the university at one point in mysteriously claiming “ownership” of the remains, and then backing down again. The Lawyer has useful articles about this.

If it does happen in Leicester (I’m on the bishop’s side), we will see the newly designed memorial tomb for Richard, which stirred up a minor controversy last year (should its style hark from Eric Gill – who taught David Kindersley, responsible for the memorial slab set in the cathedral floor in 1980 [see photo above] – or Furniture Warehouse?).

Leicester will open its new £4m museum and visitor centre, Richard III: Dynasty, Death and Discovery (and perhaps they will come up with a better name? This one sounds like a Hollywood movie franchise). This will mostly be inside the former Alderman Newton School that overlooks the dig site. Plans were approved in August last year, and Morgan Sindall began work in September.

Richard III’s statue will be moved from Leicester’s Castle Gardens (see photo above) to the front of the cathedral. The cathedral itself will open its newly laid out gardens, a major £2.5m project that coincidentally began before the excavations.

Meanwhile we should hear the results of a competition for a new sculpture, sponsored by Leicestershire County Council. I favour Michael Sandle’s idea – dark and powerful, and not sentimental – though its cost would mean an additional fundraising campaign.

Richard Buckley will be a guest at Buckingham Palace – twice. Once in February, with Leicester University colleagues to accept a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher & Further Education, and again for his OBE, “For services to archaeology” (one of only two such awards made in this round, the other being to Lindsay Allason-Jones, director of The Centre for Interdisciplinary Artefact Studies at Newcastle University).


Mathew Morris on site in 2013

Mathew Morris on site in 2013

So finally, my book. It tells the complete story of how Richard III’s burial was found – the inspiration behind the quest, the historic research, the archaeological fieldwork and the scientific and other studies – featuring all the key people involved through their own thoughts and words. It throws in a bit of history (unlike some historians, I don’t believe everyone knows all about the Wars of the Roses), but it doesn’t consider what sort of king Richard was, an increasingly tired debate that is more than well covered elsewhere. It does, I hope, capture the mood of the times, which were genuinely extraordinary. To quote the publisher’s blurb:

“The vivid tale of a king, his demise and now his rediscovery, this is also an insider’s gripping account of how modern archaeology really works, of how clues meticulously assembled and forensically examined are pieced together to create a narrative worthy of the finest detective fiction.”

Digging For Richard III: How Archaeology Found the King, is published in May by Thames and Hudson.