Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley gives key evidence from the dig site
What can we learn from the site of the Greyfriars church, and the location of the skeleton?
Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist on the Search for Richard III, gives key evidence on the dig site and discusses the results of the radiocarbon dating.
Following his death as the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485, historical accounts tell us that Richard III’s body was trussed and thrown naked over the back of a horse and brought the 15 miles back to Leicester for public display to prove to the populace that the king was indeed dead. This was probably in the church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Newarke –an added insult to the defeated Yorkist since it was effectively a mausoleum for prominent Lancastrians.
Subsequently, Richard is said to have been buried without any pomp or funeral in the choir of the Greyfriars in Leicester. Ten years later, Henry VII paid for an alabaster tomb to be erected over the grave, although this is likely to have been a modest affair. The friary was dissolved in 1538 and the buildings demolished soon afterwards, but no reliable historical accounts survive to tell us what happened to the grave. Robert Herrick built a mansion on the site and in the early 17th century had a pillar erected to mark the position of the grave. Other accounts suggested that a mob exhumed the remains and threw them into the River Soar, a view strongly held locally and which led, in the 19th century, to the erection of a plaque on West Bridge.
The local historian David Baldwin, a tutor at the University of Leicester writing over 25 years ago, doubted this story however, and believed that the King’s remains still lay in the precinct of the Greyfriars and said: ‘It is possible, (though perhaps now unlikely) that at some time in the 21st century, an excavator may yet reveal the slight remains of this famous monarch’.
The location of the Greyfriars precinct has never been lost: although the 1610 Speed map gets it wrong, it is clearly marked on the 1741 map of Leicester and the site is referred to in 18th-century historical accounts. But what does not survive is any information on the layout of the principal buildings. Whilst medieval religious sites have fairly predictable plans, these were often adapted to suit confined urban spaces. For example, in Leicester the Augustinian Friary excavated at West Bridge in the 1970s had not one, but two cloisters and the church lay to the south, rather than the more usual position to the north.
So the potential unpredictability of the friary plan coupled with the fact that the precinct is now crossed by two streets, and extensively built over and disturbed, meant that finding the church, let alone a specific burial within a specific part of this building – the choir – was always going to be a long shot. Also, should we actually find burials in the choir, would any of the skeletons actually show visible evidence to identify the individual, such as indications of injuries sustained in battle, that would justify exhumation?
I chose to investigate two trenches initially in the Social Services Car Park, both aligned north-south, in the hope that we would pick up some east-west walls of one or more buildings of the friary and, if we were lucky, find some archaeological evidence to help identify the function of particular structures.
The team on site, under the direction of Mathew Morris, started machining the first trench on 25th August 2012 and discovered evidence for an articulated burial almost immediately, in the first five metres of the first trench. This was carefully covered up as at this stage we had no idea of its location within the friary.
Subsequently, in the second trench, a pair of parallel robbed walls with evidence for an area of diagonal tiling between them was uncovered, suggesting that we had found either the western or the eastern cloister alley – a walkway around a courtyard or ‘cloister garth’. Remarkably, detailed investigation of parts of a heavily disturbed building in the first trench by Mathew and his team identified the remains a pair of internal stone benches running alongside the walls and an area of tile flooring. This immediately suggested a place for meeting – most likely the chapter house which would have opened off the eastern cloister walk.
The eastern cloister walk in turn would normally lead to the church – either to the north or the south.
A third trench was then opened to check out a suspected east-west wall north of the chapter house. This revealed a pair of substantial east-west walls about 7.4m apart, fragments of a large stone window, and evidence for two different types of tile flooring, suggesting two distinct spaces in what was almost certainly the east end of the church. In the western area were two additional parallel east-west walls, and we wondered whether they could perhaps be the bases of the choir stalls.
Now we were confident that the burial found in the first trench lay somewhere inside the church, exhumation of the individual by Jo Appleby commenced. On the same day, at a site meeting with the University’s expert on Urban Friaries, Deirdre O’Sullivan and an external specialist, Dr Glyn Coppack, it was agreed that we had found the junction of the choir and presbytery – the area in front of the high altar. This of course meant that the burial under excavation almost certainly lay in the western part of the choir and was therefore a prime candidate to be Richard III. Within minutes of this decision – before the site meeting finished –came the revelation via Mathew Morris that the burial exhibited certain ‘interesting characteristics’, in particular curvature of the spine and evidence of trauma to the skull.
The grave lay in an area of the first trench where modern disturbance had destroyed most of the later medieval floor levels and where a 19th-century brick outhouse had come very close to destroying the burial altogether.
The top of the grave lay at about 680mm below modern ground level and upon excavation it was clear that it had not been cut very neatly. In contrast with burials further to the east in the presbytery and other medieval graves from Leicester, it was irregular in shape, with sloping sides and a concave base and was too short for the individual interred within it.
The remains were discovered by University of Leicester archaeologists in the choir of the Greyfriars church and excavated on Wednesday 5th September 2012. It was an extraordinary discovery that stunned all of us and has led to the five month scientific and archaeological investigation culminating in this announcement.
The skeleton was in good condition and, apart from the hands and sternum, remained in articulation. The feet were missing, almost certainly as a result of later disturbance. And of course, the evidence for scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, could be plainly seen.
There was no evidence for a coffin, in the form of nails or impressions in the soil, or for a shroud, which might be expected to leave the bones in a rather more compact position. There was no evidence for clothing, objects of personal adornment or other goods in the grave.
Although an iron object was found between two of the vertebrae. Initial x-rays of this heavily corroded object suggested the presence of a barb, indicating that it was the point of a projectile, perhaps an arrowhead. However, more detailed analysis and many more x-rays have now confirmed that it is most likely to be a Roman nail, disturbed from earlier levels.
There were other unusual aspects to the interment.
Whilst the lower limbs were fully extended – suggesting they were laid in the grave first – the torso was twisted and unusually the head was propped upright against the north-west corner of the grave, much higher than the rest of the skeleton, with the mandible open. The lower left arm was flexed across the abdomen whilst the right arm was slightly flexed beside the torso, the hands crossing, right over left, at the hip. Recent excavations of over 1300 medieval burials elsewhere in Leicester have shown that individuals were mostly laid out with the arms extended by the sides and only very rarely were they crossed at the wrists and laid over the pelvis in this way. This raises the interesting possibility that the hands of the Greyfriars individual were tied at the wrists at the time of interment, although this is impossible to prove through scientific study as bindings would have decayed and would not leave any trace on the skeleton.
CONCLUSIONS FROM ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE
The archaeological evidence found in September may be summarised as follows:
• The investigation has shown that the burial is the choir of the church, as recorded by the historian John Rous
• The grave has apparently been hastily dug and was not quite long enough, suggesting that no great care was taken with the interment
• There is no evidence for a coffin, shroud or clothing as might be expected for a high status burial
• The disposition of the arms is unusual, raising the possibility that the hands could have been tied.
• The skeletal remains show that the person suffered from severe scoliosis and had almost certainly died as a result of wounds received in battle.
Whilst this might be taken as strong circumstantial evidence to identify the individual as Richard III, in order to test this hypothesis, the University embarked on an extensive programme of scientific analysis, the first phase of which is complete.
One of the first techniques to be applied to the skeletal remains was radiocarbon dating, in the hope that this would provide confirmation that the individual died in the late 15th century, thereby ruling out the possibility that it was a much earlier burial.
Radiocarbon dating can provide the age of organic materials such as bone, by measuring the amount of the radioactive isotope carbon 14 left in the sample. The proportion of this isotope remains constant in the body until death, at which point it starts to decay at a fixed rate, allowing the time that has elapsed since to be measured. Two fragments of rib bone were sent to two different radiocarbon dating laboratories for analysis.
Both also measured the stable isotopes in the samples and showed that the individual enjoyed a protein-rich diet, up to a quarter of which may have derived from the sea. High levels of marine protein (from eating fish and shell-fish) affect the radiocarbon dating measurement and this factor has been taken into account by both laboratories in calculating the age of the individual.
Both laboratories produced results in very close agreement and consistent with the contention that the individual could have died in 1485. Having combined the results from the two laboratories, the results provide a modelled date of 1455-1540.
The high levels of both meat and fish in the individual’s diet would also point to someone of wealth and status and further research is being undertaken this month by Jane Evans of BGS to find out more.
So our Radiocarbon Dating investigation found
• An individual with a high protein diet, and therefore likely to be of high status
• An individual who died in the second half of the 15th or in the early 16th century