Does handling of Richard III’s bones raise serious questions?
Some think so. Are they right? We’ll need a clear head for this, as some of the allegations imply professional wrongdoing, and the issues reach beyond a dead monarch.
The Independent (a national UK paper, on March 4) and the Yorkshire Post (a regional paper, on March 8) recently published the same letter from five people writing under the rubric, the Looking For Richard Project: John Ashdown-Hill, Annette Carson, David and Wendy Johnson and Philippa Langley. Here are all the important points in their letter (I’ve broken it down, so there is more repetition than in the original):
First the main issue.
1. A plan by the University of Leicester to “subject the mortal remains of Richard III to further destructive tests in order to sequence the king’s genome raises serious questions of propriety and ethics.”
Next the behaviour of the University of Leicester.
2. “The university has… authorised itself to conduct [these] tests”.
3. The “university’s custodianship of the remains is currently subject to a legal challenge and therefore sub judice.”
4. So the proposed testing shows “a cavalier disregard of the legal process”.
The validity of the scientific study is questioned.
5. “There has been no independent verification that these tests are ethical.”
6. “There has been no independent verification that these tests are necessary.”
7. These tests “are far from essential and will add very little to our useful knowledge of England’s last Plantagenet king.”
Lastly, the relative merits of the university and Philippa Langley to determine and own research into the remains are set out.
8. Philippa Langley of the Looking For Richard Project “instigated and raised the funding for the archaeological search” that found Richard III’s grave.
9. Langley had a “contract” regarding this search with University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), “freely entered into before the archaeological search began”.
10. In this contract, “essential initial testing to confirm the king’s identity was sanctioned” by Langley.
11. The contract also stipulated that “any remains positively identified as Richard III would be transferred to her as custodian to be placed in a prayerful environment to await reburial.”
12. The university has “refused to honour” the contract.
The letter sets these points out clearly and plainly. Further statements and comments on these and related issues are widespread on the web. It’s useful to bring some of these in as well. The Independent ran a piece about the letter, which attracted several comments. One of them seems to represent the feelings of people who would agree with the letter:
I would like to take issue with the above article on several points. Firstly, the article states that ULAS identified the site of Grey Friars in 2012, this is untrue. The location had been known since at least the 1980’s (see Good King Richard by Jeremy Potter). Further independent research by Philippa Langley and John Ashdown-Hill confirmed the location and offered the project to Time Team in 2005. Regrettably this was not undertaken. ULAS became involved only when the Looking for Richard team hired them, at some great cost, to undertake the dig. Furthermore, although the body of King Richard was discovered on the first day, it was completely ignored by ULAS and only returned to at the insistence of John Ashdown-Hill.
My second point concerns the research undertaken by ULAS. It was agreed by the Looking for Richard Team that for identification purposes only DNA testing on should be carried out [sic]. A process that was only possible by the meticulous research of John Ashdown-Hill on King Richard’s mitochondrial DNA and the identification of Michael Ibson [sic] as a living relative. It was agreed that upon completion of these tests and successful identification, the King’s remains would be handed over to Philippa Langley as custodian, with the intention of placing them in a place of Holy Sanctuary while awaiting reinterment. ULAS have behaved disgracefully, first by choosing to ignore the terms of their agreement and secondly by treating the King’s remains with such a cavalier attitude that denies him any dignity or honour. The casual decision to undertake genome testing, which Turi King made over drinks with a member of the Wellcome Foundation is arrogant in the extreme. The in-house ethics committee approval for the testing beggers belief – there is nothing ethical about an institution approving a project by which it is likely to gain the most profit for itself.
Thirdly these genome tests will have nothing to add to our understanding of King Richard. His hair and eye colour are known; any diseases/virus he may have been prone to in later life are of no significance, since they did not contribute to his death, and whether he was lactose intolerant or not is hardly of such groundbreaking science that it will benefit the world.
I can only finish by commending the Looking for Richard Team on their skill and professional approach to the project. It is a pity I cannot do the same for ULAS. Patricia Rice-Jones
Let’s start with how the remains were found. We’ll leave the most important issues, about the value and relevance of scientific research, to last.
Ms Rice-Jones believes that the site of Grey Friars friary church in Leicester was known long before the ULAS excavation in 2012, and that this was confirmed by Philippa Langley and John Ashdown-Hill. ULAS, the argument goes, are wrong to claim to have identified it.
Ashdown-Hill himself has gone further. On his blog, he writes that he “researched for the BBC the ‘body in the river’ myth and disproved it” (ie, Richard’s body had not been cast into the river Soar by rioting Leicester citizens); he then “established that Richard III definitely had been buried at the Franciscan Priory in Leicester, and accurately predicted the probable location of the lost priory church.” “… without [his] historical and genealogical research [of which more below] Richard III’s body would never have been rediscovered in 2012.”
Most of this is true. Ashdown-Hill argued that Richard’s body lay in the ground, and that the grave was in the council car park south of Leicester cathedral, before the excavation began. The car park bit, illustrated with a photo in his book first published in 2010 (The Last Days of Richard III, History Press) was pretty remarkable; the fact that it was coincidence – no one has found any pre-excavation record of exactly where the grave was – should not detract from the achievement of an extraordinary and inspired guess.
It should be said, though, that others were saying similar things around the same time, and had been doing so for some years. Philippa Langley says she identified the car park as the site of the grave in 2004. In his BBC piece in 2006, Ashdown-Hill says more broadly that “Richard III’s body probably still lies where it was first buried, somewhere beneath Grey Friars Street or the adjacent buildings”.
David Baldwin had said exactly that 20 years before, in 1986, in a short article that reviewed all the evidence, with full documentation. He concluded that “It is possible (though perhaps now unlikely) that at some time in the twenty-first century an excavator may yet reveal the slight remains of this famous monarch; but in the meantime we can do no more than agree with Charles Billson [writing in Mediaeval Leicester, published in 1920 and on the shelf in the Leicester record office] that the grave most probably lies beneath the northern (St Martin’s) end of Grey Friars Street, or the buildings that face it on either side.” Baldwin’s article is listed in Ashdown-Hill’s book.
So if Ashdown-Hill cannot claim to have been the first to have identified the grave site, or to have added anything to prior knowledge, does that mean that ULAS is also wrong to make that claim? No. Before excavation began, ULAS did the proper thing and conducted a background historical study to find out what was already known about the site. They knew everything that everyone else did (and could back it up with the evidence), namely that the grave was probably “somewhere beneath Grey Friars Street or the adjacent buildings”. They did not know exactly where the grave was, or if it had survived (many events could have removed it, not least the digging of house cellars). Those are facts that their excavation established, through a combination of luck, skill and resources.
Time Team – as a weary producer once confirmed to me – did indeed turn down the chance to find Richard III. However, given the small scale and budget of their digs, it is unlikely that they would have found the grave even if they had gone ahead. Time Team digs really were done over three days, so if they had found human remains – a leg bone, say – there would not have been time to obtain a licence to fully excavate them. They certainly would not have had the resources to prove the identity of a skeleton (though, had they got that far, the logical thing would have been to go to Leicester University for help).
So what about the claim that ULAS dug only because “the Looking for Richard team hired them, at some great cost”? And then, when “the body of King Richard was discovered on the first day, it was completely ignored by ULAS and only returned to at the insistence of John Ashdown-Hill”? Surely in effect that means the discovery was made by Langley and Ashdown-Hill?
It might do, were it not that both claims are false.
First, it is true that had Langley not determined to find Richard III’s grave, the dig would never have taken place. She (or the Richard III Society) paid for the desk-top study that ULAS prepared – the background historical research noted above – during which archaeologists realised the grave might still be there, and she pushed for excavation. That is her great achievement. The first part of point 8 in the letter above (Langley “instigated… the archaeological search”) is correct. The second part (“and raised the funding”) is only half true.
ULAS were not “hired [by Langley’s team] at great cost”. The written scheme of investigation – a standard and necessary excavation programme put together by ULAS on the back of the desk-top study – was prepared at their expense, not Langley’s. As she has made clear, lack of money nearly sank the project. She and Annette Carson triumphantly managed a last-minute campaign that helped to save it, but their contribution was matched by a similar sum from the university, and others made further important contributions. At a little under £50,000, the dig itself (what archaeologists would call an evaluation, not a real excavation), was small and cheap.
The dig cost £48,518, of which the Richard III Society put up £18,083 (37%). The University of Leicester (which owns ULAS) paid £19,935. Including essential, planned post-excavation study up to the end of 2012 (and work continues even now), the university had funded 80% of the £142,600 bill. The Richard III Society was a key partner in the dig. It was not alone. Further details here.
Finally, the idea that Richard’s remains were ignored by ULAS but for the insistence of John Ashdown-Hill (or of Philippa Langley, according to her co-authored book The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III), is fantasy. Here I’m afraid you are just going to have to take my word for it.
I am an archaeologist. I have spoken to several of the archaeologists who worked on the Leicester dig – not least those who directed the project, and found and excavated the grave. No archaeologist who finds human remains is going to ignore them: such action would go against all our professional training and values, and it did not happen like that in Leicester.
On the other hand, for reasons that come from the same training and values, we do not yank something out of the ground as soon as we see it. Everything is planned and done for a reason. Exhuming human remains requires a licence from the Ministry of Justice. That had to be obtained before the remains found in Leicester could be dug up. Secondly, archaeologists do not excavate graves for the sake of it (not least because the outcome can be very costly). One of the project’s goals was to find the remains of Richard III; there were no plans to recover anyone else’s. The skeleton that turned out to be Richard’s was excavated after archaeologists had established where the grave lay (by identifying details of the friary layout), information that suggested it could have been the one they were looking for. That was the time to dig the grave. And that was when it was done.
It’s important to get these issues out of the way. Scientific research very rarely succeeds because of one person’s ideas or acts. That’s just not how science works. Rather, it’s a collaborative enterprise in which everyone builds on each other’s efforts, and in which teams rather than lone individuals move things forward. Theories are cheap. Testing them is not, but that’s where we get results. That’s how Richard was found, a team effort that built on generations of research and knowledge.
The same argument applies to Ashdown-Hill’s claims to be “the person who first documented Richard III’s family link to Joy Ibsen; who, as a result, first published the king’s mtDNA sequence”. To date, these are largely unsubstantiated claims: he has yet to present his genealogical evidence in a form that takes research forward, in fully documented peer-reviewed publications. In the second edition of his book (retitled The Last Days of Richard III & the Fate of his DNA, History Press 2013) he added two chapters about genealogy and DNA. Primary documentation for the family tree is not included.
We also await such promised publications from the Leicester team, but the research has been done (importantly, in the process identifying more collateral descendants than the Ibsen family), and would have been done in the way it was regardless of prior studies. Furthermore, excavation would have proceeded without Ashdown-Hill’s claims about his own research, in the sense that ULAS’s decision to dig was based more on the promise of finding the friary than the grave. And once the grave was found, genealogy and DNA played only a part in identifying its occupant: archaeological evidence from the ground was very significant in this, arguably at least as much as that from DNA.
If one person in modern times could claim to have recognised that Richard’s grave still survived, and identified where it might lie, it’s David Baldwin. When the grave was found, asked BBC Radio Leicester’s Bridget Blair, were you not tempted to say, I told you so? “Not really,” Baldwin replied, “because I’m a rather quiet sort of person. But I was quietly satisfied. I was very pleased.” There speaks a team player.
Apart from wanting to correct misapprehensions, I’ve set this out because there seems to lie behind the debate a sense that if someone can claim to have “found” Richard, they can determine the fate of his remains. That cannot be right. We should all be able to agree on this. As some critics of the Leicester team, and of plans to bury Richard’s remains in Leicester, have said, “finders are not keepers”. In English and Welsh law, there is no property in the human corpse. On this basis, nobody owns the king’s remains – or the right to say what should happen to them. Who “found” them is a relatively trivial matter.
And here we come to my next major subject: Philippa Langley’s alleged “contract” with University of Leicester Archaeological Services (points 9–12 in my above summary of the letter). What is this contract, and has it been broken?
As I understand it, Langley contributed to the shape of two documents prepared by ULAS, a desk-top study and a written scheme of investigation. As commissioner of the first, and observer of the second, it is likely her contributions were relatively small. Neither text has been published, and ULAS has not commented publicly on recent claims. We have only Langley’s description of the nature of any agreement these might contain, or have attached. Here is what she says.
“Eighteen months before the dig took place, I asked the Ministry of Justice for advance guidance because I wanted to ensure Richard’s remains would be treated with dignity after he was exhumed and identified. They told me that the exhumation licence could not control this and I must put agreements clearly in writing, locally – which is why I put them in the contract with the University of Leicester Archaeological Services.” Leicester Mercury Jan 21 2014
“My agreement in place locally says that following identification, as the named custodian of the remains, I would be able to take Richard to a place of sanctity and rest to await reburial. That’s what it says, it’s pretty simple, and it won’t affect anything.” … “All we’re saying is, can we honour the agreement?” BBC news Feb 5 2014
Partly perhaps as a result of these claims, it may be that ULAS has not published the texts because of the imminent judicial review. We can hope that once the review is over, the documents will be published, as they need to be. All we can do is guess.
My guess is that, following standard practice, neither the desk-study nor the written scheme of investigation (WSI) constitutes a contract. That is not what such reports are: they are proposals and project designs put forward by a contractor on behalf of a client. In the case of the WSI, prepared and paid for by ULAS, whatever might have been agreed between them and the Looking For Richard Project would not be contractual unless it was spelled out as such. The two bodies were working together on a joint project.
It is possible, however, that Langley had a separate, stand-alone contract with ULAS. This, according to Langley, would have said that she “sanctioned” work to identify any remains excavated, and in the event that some turned out to be Richard III’s, that ULAS would give them to her pending reburial “in a prayerful environment”.
Ashdown-Hill has quoted the same phrase, a “prayerful environment”, and offered further details. “The key point is that Philippa Langley employed [ULAS] on a contract of service… to the effect that, if Richard III’s remains were found, then once they had been positively identified they would be handed over and would then be taken to a Catholic religious house, where they would lie undisturbed and in peace, awaiting their formal reburial in a prayerful and private environment. The site originally proposed for this was Mount St Bernard’s Abbey, which is not far from Leicester.” Leicester Mercury Jan 21 2014
This is difficult to square with what we know. By the time the dig started, the project was a joint one, in which Langley was a partner (see funding breakdown above). She cannot, on that basis, have “employed [ULAS] on a contract of service”, any more than ULAS can have employed her: the funding was for the dig, not for partnership fees. Furthermore, in the same press article, the University of Leicester is said to have claimed that there was no signed contract. “The only legally-binding agreement concerning the remains of Richard III”, it says, “is that issued by the Ministry of Justice to the University of Leicester. This requires the university to act as custodian of the remains until the point of reinterment at Leicester Cathedral.”
I cannot imagine that any responsible archaeologist would sign a contract in advance of an excavation – where no one could predict what was to be found – that stipulated that human remains would be handed over to an individual. Archaeologists have no authority to do such a thing. At the dig, once remains were found and the decision had been taken to exhume them, ULAS applied for a licence. At that point, they had the obligation to say what might happen to any remains. The intention was to exhume up to six sets. In due course, proposed ULAS, they would be deposited at the nearest archaeological museum, the Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester. But if one of these sets turned out to be Richard III’s, these would be reburied in Leicester Cathedral. The issued licence leaves open the possibility that Richard’s remains might be curated by the museum: any remains shall “be deposited at Jewry Wall Museum or else be reinterred at St Martins Cathedral or in a burial ground in which interments may legally take place”.
All this follows standard, agreed procedure (see my earlier blog here). So where does that leave Langley’s “contract”? The quoted phrases are presumably written down somewhere. They would, one assumes, have been discussed. With hindsight, the mistake the archaeologists seem to have made was to allow anyone to think of such statements as contractual, rather than aspirational. But a mistake does not make a contract. In this context, it is difficult to imagine any valid document exists that the university could have “refused to honour”.
We come back to my earlier point about ownership. No one can claim special powers over ancient human remains beyond the law and publicly agreed principles. No individual had authority to “sanction” (or otherwise control) research on Richard’s remains, or to be nominated as “custodian”. And as the university argued in a bizarre twist late last year, Leicester City Council did not have control of Richard’s remains simply because they were found in its car park.
However, it is the contention of the Plantagenet Alliance that we need new principles to guide the handling and fate of “royalty”, which is what the judicial review is to consider. This was not thought necessary by either ULAS or the Looking For Richard Project. In the words of the Honourable Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, “it is plainly arguable that there was a duty at common law to consult widely as to how and where Richard III’s remains should appropriately be re-interred.” As far as I am aware, no such consultation like this has ever been conducted in the UK. The outcome of any consultation, should it be recommended, is impossible to predict. We should know if it is to happen by the end of this week.
So finally what, to me, is the key subject: the process of scientific research. In their letter, the Looking For Richard Project (LRP) question proposals to sequence the king’s DNA. They make three assertions:
1. The research may not be “necessary”, is not “essential”, and “will add very little to our useful knowledge of England’s last Plantagenet king” (points 6–7).
2. The research may not be “ethical” (point 5).
3. In promulgating the project, Leicester University has broken the principle, at the very least, of the judicial review (points 2–4).
The last point seems to be a red herring. It is a curious one for the LRP to make. While the review will question, among other things, the right of the university to determine where Richard III’s remains should be reburied, many of us might think that digging them up in the first place is of equal moment – perhaps more. Should the decision to dig have been subjected to a national consultation? Personally I think not, but using the review as part of your armoury arguably draws attention to your own actions, with potentially unhelpful consequences. In any event, the judgement in August 2013 makes no reference to study of the remains, only to their ultimate disposal – to “how, and where, the remains of Richard III should be reburied”. On that basis, in recommending further research, it seems the university cannot be held to be ignoring legal process.
The ethics of excavating and studying human remains is a huge and much debated subject. There’s a good review by Charlotte Roberts in the CBA’s handbook, Human Remains in Archaeology (2009, chapter 2). She argues that, in Britain, “we can all claim a common ancestry with our forebears, and we can all have opinions about how human remains from archaeological sites should be treated”. Studying human remains is “a privilege, not a right”. Such study has undoubted value for our knowledge of the past, and people are generally supportive, and fascinated by the results. But we need more debate in the UK about ancient human remains, and how archaeologists should treat them.
Few archaeologists today would disagree with any of that, and substantial debate has occurred since the book was published. A very useful recent collection of articles (including one which I co-authored) is Curating Human Remains: Caring for the Dead in the United Kingdom, edited by Myra Giesen (Boydell 2013).
I suspect that many would be surprised to hear how many human bones and other remains are excavated by archaeologists. In Giesen’s book, Hedley Swain writes that UK museums currently hold over 60,000 human remains, most of which have been excavated by archaeologists in the past 20 or 30 years, and most of which are medieval or more recent. One of the issues in the debate about Richard III has to be to what extent the king’s remains should be treated differently from all these others?
Who is to say which individual from the past was more important, or is now more significant? These are not the same things: bones currently displayed in the Natural History Museum’s exhibition “Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story”, are of incalculable value to science and the public, but that has nothing at all to do with the status of the individuals in life, which is unknowable. Richard III is important to many today because he was a king. But there are likely to be many others for whom that fact is less powerful, who might, for example, value more the remains of a prehistoric person buried at Stonehenge, or a skeleton found by builders at the bottom of their garden.
I said above that I was not aware of a consultation about the reburial of royal remains. There have, however, been a few other consultations, notably one that concerned the potential reburial of prehistoric bones held by Avebury museum in Wiltshire. This was a lengthy, complex and costly exercise managed by English Heritage, brought by claims from a small group who had no particular relationship to the ancient people (see British Archaeology May/Jun 2010/112). The issue was not about where reburial should occur, but whether or not it should happen at all (the museum, understandably, thought not).
As part of this project, Research into Issues Surrounding Human Bones in Museums (commissioned by English Heritage, 2009) found that “The vast majority of the England adult population support museums that wish to display and keep human bones for research purposes”. However, fewer (53%, rising to 69% for those with no religious affiliation) agreed that research was acceptable regardless of whether or not the bones were from named individuals.
Charlotte Woodhead, an assistant professor of law at Warwick University and a non-practising barrister, has written interestingly about this study, also in the Giesen book. She makes the point about the project’s cost, but that its value lay partly in its ability to inform similar reburial requests made to other museums. In other words, it was a case study.
She points out that the British legal regime concerning the museum treatment of those who died less than 100 years ago “is firmly based on the notion of consent”. By contrast, for older remains, “the concept of consultation underpins the ethical guidance”. Applied to Richard III’s remains, this would support the Plantagenet Alliance’s approach (consultation) against that of the Looking For Richard Project (consent). Leicester University has issued a statement on the ethics of sequencing Richard III’s genome. Note that the Wellcome Trust and the Leverhulme Trust, who are major funders of the research, have ratified the process. They are both organisations that take ethical issues extremely seriously.
Although destined for reburial, Richard III’s skeleton is currently in effect in a sort of museum – it deserves and will be receiving the same respect and care as it would obtain in such an institution. I noted earlier that in English law there is no property in the human corpse. This is a position taken by museums, who see themselves as curators or carers rather than owners. As general principles, they welcome research on their collections (one of the key reasons why they maintain them in the first place – and why archaeologists excavate things), and do not judge it.
Museums recognise, however, that human remains bring special responsibilities. The UK government published an important report called Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (DCMS 2005). Among its list of ethical principles (which “will frequently come into conflict with each other”) are Respect for diversity of belief, Respect for the value of science, and Beneficence. Examples of the latter include “advancing knowledge that is of benefit to humanity (for example, by using human remains for scientific research)”, and “respecting the wishes of an individual (for example, by returning the remains of their relative for burial)”.
Given the knowledge that Richard III’s remains are to be reburied, Leicester University has a responsibility to science and to public beneficence to research them in the short time that is available. The identification of a skeleton as Richard III’s has led to enormous public interest in those remains. That does not mean, however, that the skeleton, were it not the king’s, would then have no interest. Until a late stage in the excavation, the common assumption was that the grave belonged to a medieval friar. That was interesting: at that stage in the dig, the friary was the archaeologists’ main focus. Like everything that archaeologists find, the remains have an intrinsic value that is not to be judged by immediate concerns. That alone is justification for researching them. But given the additional and substantial, international interest, research might arguably be seen as an obligation.
Simply asserting that research on the remains may or may not be ethical or necessary (points 5–6) adds little useful to the debate. We accept, in 21st century Britain, that proper research into historic human remains is a good thing. The Looking For Richard Project thought it would be of public value and interest to dig up the king’s remains, and conduct research necessary to identify them, with no public consultation. This involved more than a quest for ancient mtDNA: detailed anatomical and pathological studies, including a number of digital scans, were also conducted, and will prove of value, not just in identifying the king, but in understanding him – how he looked, how he lived and how he died. Provisional results from this research have been described, but more will come as peer-reviewed studies are published.
What makes Richard III’s genome – the DNA that defined him, not just the little bit that identified him – of particular interest is the fact that we know who he was. Because of this, thanks to genealogical records, we can trace living people with precisely identifiable relationships to him – of whom there are potentially millions, more or less close – whose DNA can also be sequenced. That means, for the first time, it will be possible to see how genes have evolved over several generations, and, to a certain extent, to be able to consider those changes in the contexts of personal lives and wider society. That is an extraordinary thing, with unknown but possibly significant value to our understanding of modern health and diseases, and wider issues of evolution.
Patricia Rice-Jones questions whether sequencing the genome will increase our knowledge of the man himself. “These genome tests will have nothing to add to our understanding of King Richard,” she says. “His hair and eye colour are known.” But how do we know if the portraits (often dismissed by Ricardians for their distortions) show his real colours? There is potential here for learning something about both Richard and portraiture. It sounds very odd to say, as she does, that diseases have no significance if they do not kill.
It is easy to mock claims in the press release announcing the genome project, but such cynicism is misplaced. Research has not yet begun. Of course little specific can be said that relates to the value of being able to study Richard’s genome, because we haven’t yet seen it: that is precisely why scientists want to look at it. That is how research works, and why we are not all still knapping stone tools and wearing skins. Inquiry experiments with the unknown. It does not judge things that have not yet happened.
So where, to end at last, does this get us? Handling Richard III’s bones does raise serious questions – as should handling any remains. However, it is debatable whether or not how that is being done is questionable. And, it seems to me, none of the accusations in the Looking For Richard Project’s letter carries any weight.
Meanwhile, we look forward to the judicial review with great interest. It starts on Thursday.
This entry was posted on March 11, 2014 by mikepitts. It was filed under Archaeology and was tagged with excavation, human remains, John Ashdown-Hill, Leicester, Leicester University, new menu, Philippa Langley, Time team, ULAS.