Leicester

Richard III: Greatest archaeological discovery of all?

  • 12 February 2013
  • From the section Leicester
Staffordshire hoard piece and golden torc
Image caption Archaeological jackpot? Golden finds like these are most people's idea of treasure but does the real value lie elsewhere?

It has attracted global attention with its blend of detective work and dark historical deeds but where does the discovery of Richard III's grave rate among England's greatest archaeological finds?

From one perspective, the Greyfriars skeleton is a collection of old bones - surely treasure should be more eye-catching?

But the remains have attracted the sort of attention which puts wallet-busting finds like the Staffordshire Hoard and Crosby Garrett helmet in the shade. Why?

The impact is undeniable, from queues to see a rapidly organised exhibition in Leicester to nearly 20,000 signing an e-petition to get the bones buried in York.

Mike Heyworth, director of the Council for British Archaeology, said: "In the public consciousness it is almost always the finds that are the most financially valuable which make the impression.

Image caption Finding Shakespeare's theatres prompted widespread media interest

"You hear about a metal detectorist who has been paid £3m or so for reporting finding something gold and glittery, but what does that tell us about the human story?

Celebrity appeal

"However, the discovery of Richard is interesting because rarely in archaeology do you get the opportunity to take things down to the named individual."

Richard Buckley, who lead the excavation to find Richard and delivered the news he had been found, agreed: "Is it the greatest find ever in English archaeology? To say that is to invite being shot down.

"But it is certainly one of the most exciting, and it provides us with extraordinary information about Richard, who is a fascinating person."

Carly Hilts, assistant editor of Current Archaeology magazine, said: "Richard III is a figure both immediately familiar and very remote, our impressions of him shaped by Shakespearean fiction and Tudor propaganda.

"Finding a tangible connection to such an iconic individual holds a very modern appeal with its air of celebrity."

Arthurian quest

Ms Hilts said another example - with links to Richard - showed the enduring power of a famous name: "The fascination was the same when Museum of London archaeologists excavated the Curtain Theatre, one of the playhouses linked to Shakespeare's early career, last year.

"These are glamorous, exciting finds."

Mr Heyworth added there were few other names which could attract the same level of attention in archaeology.

"Some work has been done in Winchester looking for the burial site of King Arthur and that extends to Glastonbury Tor and Tintagel Castle.

"People are also often looking for anything to do Boudicca, particularly her grave. It's because people are fascinated by the extraordinary stories connected with them."

Arguably the highest profile burial site found before Richard's was that of an unnamed king at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, which combined precious objects with revelatory archaeological information.

'Ordinary' people

Mr Buckley said: "Some finds shine a light on a period of time we know little about. The Staffordshire Hoard, for example, tells us about the turbulent post-Roman period.

"Right here in Leicestershire, the Hallaton Hoard, gives us a huge amount of information about the transition from Iron Age Britain to Roman Britain."

Most archaeologists would insist the true value of their work lies away from the glamour of kings and nobles and with the lives of the ordinary people of the past.

Ms Hilts said England had excellent examples of this: "Firstly in York, where years of excavations have uncovered the stunningly well-preserved remains of Viking Age Jorvik, its houses and domestic objects illustrating every aspect of life 1,000 years ago.

Image caption One of the most famous tablets from Vindolanda is a birthday party invitation

"Meanwhile, in east London, Roman streets, homes, and shop fronts are emerging along the Walbrook channel. These finds throw vivid light on the lost worlds of our everyday, undocumented ancestors, allowing us to literally follow in their footsteps.

"More poignant still is when we can hear their voices. In 1973 the discovery of the Vindolanda Tablets - a collection of writings scribbled on scraps of wood, found at a fort near Hadrian's Wall - gave a very human insight into life on the Roman frontier.

Image caption The legacy of Richard's discovery may be as the focus of 'cutting edge' research

"These fragile fragments offer a unique window into the past."

'Incredible story'

Mr Heyworth added: "I was involved in the Britain's Secret Treasures programme where we tried to put together a list of the top objects found in the past 20 years by members of the public and reported to the museums.

"The number one we came up with was nothing to do with the standard "bling", it was a Palaeolithic hand axe dating back half a million years.

"We chose it because it was such a pivotal object in relation to the first tools that humans used, one of the steps that defined us a humans,"

Mr Buckley believed finding Richard would have an important legacy.

"Cutting edge research has been used in the project and the work has really only just begun. The discoveries, such as the very precise carbon dating and medical evidence, will serve as a benchmark for other studies.

"And it is, of course, an incredible story. He's a controversial figure, people love the idea he was found under a car park, the whole thing unfolded in the most amazing way. You couldn't make it up," he said.

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