If you’re like me you’’ve been fascinated by the discovery of the remains of King Richard III. But … you probably don’t have my advantages … 2 hours of exam proctoring this morning, giving me plenty of relaxed time to read the backstory and write this up.
In fact, here’s the video from last August, and it turns out they thought that looking for the body would make a good documentary whether they found him or not.
In this case … the (later to be shown not so) crazy archaeologists claimed to know where Richard III’s remains were. They’re going to make a ton of money on this documentary now!
Why this particular king? Richard III was the last English king killed in battle, and his death ended a civil war known as the War of the Roses. The victors made sure that historians and Shakespeare have portrayed him badly: he’s the supposedly evil, cripple, that killed off his nephews so that he could be king.
Usually we know where famous people are buried. In this case, they did too … but no one followed up on it.
After the battle, Richard’s body was taken to a friary (like a monastery, but more open to the public). This was in the big town down the road, Leicester (pronounced “Lester”, it’s a city north of London, about the size of Spokane).
Reports indicate that he was buried under the choir of the friary’s church – a fairly common place to bury someone who’s grave might be robbed if it was buried outside. This was confirmed because the new King Henry VII paid to have it spiffed up a bit.
But then his son, Henry VIII, had the friars’ orders dissolved, and this particular order’s home torn down around 50 years later. And this is where the rumor started that kept the body from being found: they started to say the bones had been dug up and thrown in the river. Probably some other schleps bones were …
But, the lot was left vacant (some things never change). Eventually it was bought, and a large house was built on one side of the property. Walled gardens were grown over the site of the friary (you know … big, Downton Abbey style gardens covering several acres). And about 125 years after the burial it was reported that there was a 3 foot tall stone marking the grave.
About a hundred years after that, the city was mapped. And the map shows the paths in the gardens … intersecting.
If you had the grave of a king, even a disgraced one, marked with a big stone in your backyard, just maybe you’d have the paths intersect there. You know … X marks the spot?
Here’s the map from 1741. The former Grey Friars property is the large trapezoid just below center. The words “Grey Friars” are written at a 90 degree angle. The garden paths intersect just to the right of the “y” in Grey.
It’s more like + marks the spot … but it’s there.
In the above image, a screen capture from the Google map linked below, the trapezoidal property that was Grey Friars is composed of the three blocks starting at the top right, and getting progressively larger going to the left. The “Google A” is misplaced … I’d put the + from the 1741 map just to the left of the 3 white trucks parked just to the right of center near the top (you can’t miss them — they’re bigger than the cars).
But over the last 300 years, the house has been torn down, and other buildings have been built on the site. But, the roads are still in the same spots, and there’s still a Grey Friars Road along one side of the site.
Here’s the thing: the new buildings were built on the sites of the old ones … and the gardens stayed undeveloped. No doubt, every round of builders decided to keep the nice looking lawns and trees instead of replanting. Here’s the same area in 1828:
In the above image, the original large trapezoid is now divided by a small road, right in the center of the map. The garden and its paths are now split between the two blocks, but the + is one of the intersections in the block to the right of the new road (which is still called New Street).
By 1904, another road had been put through the smaller block on the right, and more buildings were added. The + of garden paths is gone now, but it’s still in the white spaces in the interior of the middle block:
But, several decades ago, what was left of the gardens were paved to make what the British call a car park (almost, but not quite, paving paradise to put up a parking lot). If you compare the map directly above to the Google screen capture even further up, you can see that the empty white lots from 1904 roughly match the parking lot of 2013.
And a devotee of Richard III puts all this together and realizes that the spot where the choir of the friary stood might be under the (easy to excavate) parking lot. You can see the parking lot in the middle of this satellite image, in the block to the left of Grey Friars Road. In the image below, the body was found in front of the building way back on the left:
Through the internet she raises money very quickly to dig up the parking lot, and calls the archaeologists. It turns out the University of Leicester specializes in this sort of thing, and DNA identification of remains was developed there in the 1980’s.
If you’re interested in more details, I suggest you go straight to The Search for Richard III site at the University of Leicester. It’s really cool, and very informative … just make sure that you figure out how to follow all the links (I had a little trouble at first). But, if you like my summary so far, I’ll finish.
What the archaeologists do is pretty interesting. They dig a trench and see what’s in it. Then they dig a parallel trench several yards to the side. But, they offset its starting point so that it just overlaps the the ending point of the first trench. That way they’re checking a lot of ground, but can also catch features that run across both trenches. In the video above they suggest that they had an 80/20 chance of finding the friary, but astronomical odds of finding Richard’s body.
In this case, they dug three trenches. But they started the first one where they thought the choir would be, and they found bones on the first day. But, they carried on, and from the three trenches were able to figure out the outlines of the friary, and confirm that the bones they’d found on the first day were probably in the choir.
They exhumed the bones, and confirmed that they are 500 years old, and from a relative of two people who are still living, and who are in turn distant descendants of Richard’s mother. The bones show fatal wounds consistent with descriptions of Richard’s death in battle. And they show a physical deformity — scoliosis — that is consistent with contemporary descriptions of Richard’s physique.
Here’s a facial reconstruction:
Here is a link to this part of the site showing the multiple, potentially fatal head injuries suffered by Richard in the battle. This is one part of the site where I didn’t realize right away that there were links I was supposed to follow.
Here’s Richard’s spine, showing the curvature that contributed to his undeserved reputation as a cripple, but which certainly did lead him to be shorter and slighter, perhaps a bit lopsided looking, and possibly chronically short of breath: