Science & Environment

Tombs in Suffolk studied with aid of space-age science

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Media captionDr Phillip Lindley of Leicester University on how science is being used to crack a Renaissance mystery

The science of the space age is being deployed to probe the secrets of the Tudor tombs of the great Howard family.

Laser imaging and X-ray spectrometers are being used to scan the tombs so they can be virtually deconstructed and reassembled in their original guise.

It is thought two of the tombs, in the church of St Michael the Archangel in Framlingham, Suffolk, were substantially remodelled after they were moved from Thetford Priory in Norfolk in 1540.

The belief is that the salvaged tombs received a Renaissance makeover, with new simpler additions or replacements probably made in the 1550s.

Other elements seem to have been abandoned at Thetford following its dissolution, where they were found during excavations in the 1930s. These fragments will also be scanned and thrown into the 3D jigsaw.

Virtual reconstruction

"They're very significant, they're among the most important tombs of the 16th Century in England, both stylistically and in terms of the people represented here," said Dr Phillip Lindley of Leicester University, the art historian who is leading the project.

"There's Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk, and Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, Henry VIII's bastard son and Howard's son-in-law."

Thomas Howard was a senior figure throughout the reign of Henry VIII. Two of his nieces, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, both famously married Henry.

But he fell from favour late in the Tudor monarch's reign, and was only saved from death because Henry himself died the night before Howard's scheduled execution.

"We're scanning these tombs three-dimensionally," says Dr Lindley. "Both Howard and Fitzroy's tombs seem to be multi-phase monuments.

"They have a first and second phase separated by as little as 15 years and what we're going to do is virtually disassemble them and reconstruct them in what we think were their original appearances."

Image caption Two of the Howard tombs appear to have been remodelled after being moved from a priory

The scanning team, EuroPac 3D, used a laser to build up thousands of spatial reference points across the tombs' surfaces. These points were then connected up in tiny triangles and the image rendered to create a high-resolution 3D model of the tombs.

The researchers are also using X-ray spectrometers - widely-used tools to determine the composition of objects ranging from meteorites to distant star clusters - to pick out different types of stone and faint traces of paint.

All will be done without a stone being moved, and the Howards quickly left in peace as the project moves to the office.

It is there that over the course of the next few months, the tombs will be virtually broken apart and reassembled into various possible configurations.

Excavated remains from Thetford Priory are also being scanned and will be added into the virtual jigsaw, until Dr Lindley and colleagues believe they have rebuilt the tombs in their original form.

The project, which involves collaboration with Yale and Oxford Universities and English Heritage, is being funded by the UK's Science and Heritage Programme.

Transit damage

Art historians have long suspected that these two tombs were moved from Thetford Priory and it was first suggested in the 1980s that both tombs were composite works, with some portions dating from before 1540 and later parts added when the monuments were brought to Framlingham.

The tomb of the third duke of Norfolk has a simpler undecorated top portion, which has many marks etched upon it identifying the work of individual stonemasons. The more decorative base has no such marks, and is lavishly carved with images of the apostles.

These figures, carved in the base section of the tomb, have similar crack marks and clear repairs, suggesting they may have been stacked up on a cart for transit from Thetford, and that the stacked pieces then broke down the same fault lines and had to be repaired.

The monument of Henry Fitzroy, by contrast, has a base section decorated with heraldry and is also covered with masons' marks, while its upper section showcases Old Testament narratives but none of the marks.

It has been suggested that the work of the 1550s can be identified by the mason's marks and simpler, plainer, style.

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