The Skeleton in the Car Park: Richard III and the legacy of his re-discovery

by Mathew Morris

5 Mar 2015

With the reburial of Richard III’s remains in Leicester Cathedral only weeks away it is an apt time to reflect on the legacy of the king’s re-discovery. The story is, by now, well known; how in 2012 a project initiated by Philippa Langley and enacted by archaeologists from the University of Leicester in collaboration with Leicester City Council and the Richard III Society managed to achieve the unachievable and re-discover the remains of one of England’s more notorious medieval monarchs, thought lost for the last 500 years.

The discovery took the world by storm and the impact of the project is far reaching. Rarely has a week gone by without a media outlet somewhere in the world producing another story on the finding. In Leicester, a new visitor centre has opened on the site of the king’s grave, the cathedral quarter has been revitalised into a flourishing heritage asset, new galleries are being installed in the city’s medieval guildhall and just last month De Montfort University announced plans to bring Leicester Castle, long neglected and side-lined, back into use. This will have a tangible and positive effect on the economy of the city and the surrounding region. More broadly, the project has led to renewed interest in British history, archaeology and literature. This year Channel 4 will be covering the reburial services live, we will see a new dramatization of Shakespeare’s play on the BBC, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular character, and later this summer the university will be staging an exhibit on the project at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition in London; team members have talks booked into 2016 and interest is unlikely to wane anytime soon.

So what is the legacy? Shortly after the skeleton’s identity was confirmed in February 2013, BBC correspondent Greig Watson pondered on ‘Richard III: Greatest archaeological discovery of all?’. He observed that it was the ‘blend of detective work and dark historical deeds’ which allowed a global audience to find a tangible connection with an iconic historical figure. At its heart it is a human story, but behind the project’s ‘celebrity’ appeal is it really a great archaeological discovery?

As an archaeologist, my thoughts focus towards the project’s contribution to our understanding of Richard III, medieval England and the story of Leicester. When excavating human remains, archaeologists seldom set out to find individual people. Rather, we are interested in collecting broader demographic data – life-expectancy, stature, health, diet etc. – which will further our understanding of past populations and societies. Yet how can we distinguish between different groups of people; who was a poor peasant, an affluent merchant or a prosperous lord, for instance, if we do not know who is who? In the rare instance when a named individual can be identified we are afforded a unique reference-point against which other skeletal assemblages can be compared.

Because the identity of the skeleton is known we can approach the collected data in a fundamentally different way. Take the stable isotope analysis for instance. In an anonymous individual we would assume that changes in oxygen isotopes reflect changes in drinking water, and therefore geographical movement, but because Richard III’s adult life is historically documented we can search for other interpretations of the data, leading to the suggestion that his wine consumption increased towards the end of his life. This is the first suggestion of wine affecting the oxygen isotope composition of an individual and thus has wider implications for isotope-based palaeodietary and migration reconstructions (Lamb et al. 2014).

Archaeologists are seldom afforded the opportunity to combine such an array of different scientific techniques – radiocarbon dating, stable isotope analysis, genetics and genealogy, osteology and forensic pathology, analysis using micro-CT scanning, facial reconstruction etc. – in the study of a single individual. Richard III is currently the oldest named person to be identified through mitochondrial DNA and genetic analysis is going beyond identification to forensically investigate aspects of his appearance (e.g. eye colour, hair colour – King et al. 2014), which will aid new analysis of Ricardian portraiture. Such cutting edge, interdisciplinary research has far reaching implications and will serve as a benchmark for future studies.

The discovery of the king’s remains has generated a large body of material evidence against which historians can compare and critique late medieval and Tudor historical and literary sources. We are going to have to revise our opinions, some deeply entrenched, on Richard’s character, historic attitudes towards scoliosis and the nature of Tudor propaganda. But at the end of the day, have we really learnt anything new about Richard III’s character? Yes, we now know what he looked like and that he had scoliosis, yes we know how he was killed in battle and that he was not treated well after death and we can finally say for certain that his body was not dug up and thrown in the river; but the clues were already there in historical sources. The project has corroborated known information but it has not proved whether he was saint or sinner, has not discovered whether he murdered his nephews, the princes in the Tower, and was never going to in the first place, archaeology does not answer these sorts of questions.

For me, the discovery of the friary,  the identification of buildings such as the church and chapter house, and the recovery of evidence for what they looked like, how they changed through their 300 year history and what the lives of the resident friars were like, is of greater significance. Grey Friars was an important institution in Leicester which would have played a significant role in the development of the medieval town, yet we knew next to nothing about it before the project began. It had never been excavated, few historic records survived and we were unlikely to learn more from non-archaeological sources of information. Now, for the first time, a big blank area on the map of  medieval Leicester is being filled in.

Ultimately, whether the re-discovery of Richard III has radically altered our view of the king or not, the project has had the right blend of intrigue and melodrama to reignite peoples’ interest in history and that can only be a good thing.

Mathew Morris MA ACIfA is Site Director for the Grey Friars Project, University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS). He will be speaking at a British Academy Panel Discussion on the subject of The Skeleton in the Car Park: Richard III and the legacy of his re-discovery on Thursday 12 March.

Further reading:

Buckley, R. et al. (2013) ‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death and burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485’ in Antiquity 87:336, pp519-538

Mitchell, P.D. et al. (2013) ‘The intestinal parasites of King Richard III’ in The Lancet 382, p888

Appleby, J. et al. (2014) ‘The scoliosis of Richard III, last Plantagenet King of England: diagnosis and clinical significance’ in The Lancet 383, p1944

Lamb, A.L. et al. (2014) ‘Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III’ in Journal of Archaeological Science 30, pp1-7

Appleby, J. et al. (2014) ‘Peri-mortem skeletal trauma in Richard III’ in The Lancet, online edition 17 Sept 2014

King, T. et al. (2014) ‘Identification of the remains of King Richard III‘ in Nature Communications 5article 5631, 2 Dec 2014

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