Richard III’s Grave? Photograph: University of Leicester


I would like to present some views on the excavation and study of the remains of Richard III.

Recent studies of the ethics and politics of digging up, studying, displaying and reporting on the remains of the dead highlight many examples when British archaeologists have found themselves embroiled in controversy. There is a long line of case studies going back to antiquarian excavations in cathedrals and in burial mounds. More recently there was the controversy surrounding the remains of Anne de Mowbray, accidentally recovered in 1965 and an early example of British disputes over what to do with the dead.  It is not a coincidence that the controversy in the case of Anne de Mowbray pertained to an individual whose name was known and that the individual was of royal blood. In Duncan Sayer’s superb little book, Ethics and Burial Archaeology, you can read all about the distinctive and variegated British experience of evolving attitudes and practices surrounding how we deal with digging up the dead, from Jewbury, York to St Pancras, London.

There are no widely recognised native communities claiming the ancestral British dead, although vocal neo-pagan groups have claimed the prehistoric dead as their own and affected some dimensions of museum policy and practice. In particular, there has been debate over the reburial of the human remains at Avebury. Also, the re-excavation of cremations from the Aubury Holes at Stonehenge is among the most famous cases. Furthermore, there has been some debate regarding how and why we display the dead, such as Lindow Man and the Manchester Museum mummies. Less heated, but perhaps more widely recognised and factored into archaeological practice and policy, there has been dialogue with Jewish groups and Christian institutions regarding guidelines on excavation, study, display and reburial. Archaeologists are well-aware they are dealing with sensitive issues and many different views. Still, there are inherent hypocrisies in the historically conditional and varied ways in which archaeologists have, and still do, deal with the dead in the UK.

Still, digging up the dead is clearly here to stay in Britain. Museums still love displaying them, the public love them, and human remains are one of the things that attracts people to the study of the past. It is the scientific information graves and bones contain, the stories of past lives and deaths they tell, but also what they tell us about our own mortality, that gel together and make the dead venerated by archaeology fans. It is veneration without religion, honour in science, where the grisly details  do not ghoulishly entertain but rigorously captivate enquiring minds.

Richard III’s Bones

Yet the discovery, study and reburial of the bones of King Richard III of England is not only the latest, but is set to be the most ridiculous and complex engagements of British archaeology with the ancient dead. He wasn’t accidentally discovered: he was deliberately sought out by commercial archaeologists affiliated to the University of Leicester who were commissioned and funded to dig him up by the Richard III Society. Preliminary results have been published in the journal Antiquity. Finding an historical personage so much maligned by history sparked the imagination and has fascinated the media. De-bunking the myths? Confirming the myths? Or a bit of both? The jury is still out.

Everyone loves (or loves to hate) Richard III it seems: those interested in history, those who love Shakespeare’s play, and now archaeologists too. Leicester Cathedral have now revealed the plans of how the tomb may look and there are also plans for a Richard III museum. To be fair to the archaeologists, they haven’t simply dug to find a single grave, they did the dig knowing that finding his grave was a slim possibility and that it was an opportunity to investigate an important medieval site. They have been back and investigated more graves and features to understand the building and burials of the Greyfriars of Leicester, using the famous discovery to inspire and fund further work with a broader remit. The Antiquity article makes it very clear that Richard III’s grave is but part of the research agenda for the archaeological work, and other results of the excavation merit equal standing.

Still, clearly there has been too much interest, too much love and hate, for Richard III. Many are interested not only in the story of his discovery and the direct and indirect light it sheds on the Middle Ages, they have vested interests in what happens to his bones. For many, this is a coup for Leicester, its archaeologists, its communities and its university. For others, we all now ‘own’ a bit of Richard III. Yet, many want him to go to York Minster for burial and, for some, the archaeological discovery has become over-shadowed by the ‘sordid’ controversy of claims over his final resting place and the design of his tomb.

Yet this has nothing to do with archaeology itself right? Whether he goes to York or Leicester, archaeology is the winner, yes? The amazing success of Leicester archaeologists only serves to promote archaeology and its contribution to the study of the human past, right? How can I complain? It might be seen as sour grapes or a bit rich since I have also been seeking out ancient royals – I have written research papers on Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, possibly a burial place of East Anglia’s earliest kings, I am exploring tombs in English and Welsh cathedrals, including royalty, and from 2010 to 2012, I dug in search of the significance of a ninth-century cross-shaft raised by an early medieval king to commemorate real and imagined ancestors: the Pillar of Eliseg. I would agree that the fate, burial and commemoration of elites and royalty sheds much light on social, political and religious ideas and practices in past societies, and I congratulate the Leicester team for their high-profile work. So archaeology wins all round it seems.

Partly. I say this because I would like to present three ways in which digging up Richard III remains deeply concerning to me. I wouldn’t call it truly wrong in an ethical sense that Richard III has been dug up and studied; plenty of other historical personages have been dug up by archaeologists. But I do think, for three reasons, digging up Richard III has provided a truly false perspective on medieval burial archaeology. In that sense, digging up Richard III has been truly wrong. Please note the subtle point here, don’t misquote me. This isn’t an attack on Leicester’s archaeologist or a ‘dig’ at Richard III and his many modern-day acolytes. It is more a comment our our society’s priorities and consumption of the archaeological dead.

The Real Study of the Medieval Dead

Archaeologists have dug up tens of thousands of medieval graves, from countless excavations in churchyards, churches and other locations across the  British landscape. The study of the human remains, burial rites, and tombs, as well as many other components of mortuary practices, sheds light on both life and death in the Middle Ages, and how they varied over time, space and due to circumstances. Just skip through the publications of Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) and you will find many key studies. For example, one book co-authored by my colleague, Dr Amy Gray Jones, is a detailed study of 5,387 skeletons from the excavations at St Mary Spital, London, between 1991 and 2007. Within this study, many individual ‘osteobiographies’ can be written looking at the health, disease, age, sex, stature and other characteristics of individual skeletons, as well as the rich picture of life and death revealed by looking at the cemetery population as a whole. We might also cite Roberta Gilchrist and Barney Sloane’s book on the rich data about mortuary practice revealed from many detailed and expansive excavations of medieval monastic cemeteries: Requiem. So what bugs me, and consitutes the first way that digging up Richard III is ‘truly wrong’ is that it completely misrepresents the many exciting results of medieval burial archaeology. We knew Richard III was a king, how he died and where he was buried. Even if we can now prove that he was a ‘hunchback’ (from a medieval perspective), he did die in battle and the kinds of parasite that lived in his gut, this in itself tells us very little new about history, and actually, very little new about archaeology. Digging up Richard III as an end in itself is completely counter to the population-level emphasis in the real study of human remains and their mortuary contexts, and it isn’t necessarily going to be a fair and representative example of what individual osteobiographies can reveal about medieval life-ways.

The Shameful Study of the Medieval Dead

If the digging up of Richard III detracts from the real work of medieval burial archaeology and human osteology, it also takes attention away from the many irresponsible and shameful failures to adequately record, analyse and publish archaeological findings that continue to beset medieval burial archaeology. Richard III may be a PR success story, but the public should be interested in the many more skeletons that receive shameful treatment, not because of the failings of archaeologists and their skills, but the failings of the circumstances in which they operate. Set against these success stories, there are many shameful cases where developers have, even quite recently, pushed through the excavation of medieval and modern human remains without detailed archaeological research taking place. Worse still, there are cases where archaeologists are digging human remains without either a clear research agenda to do so or a commercial context in which they are ‘preserving by record’ remains due to be disturbed by development. Then there are studies of the graves remain in limbo, because funding is not available, or is withdrawn. Archaeologist Mike Morris of Cheshire West and Chester Council was forced to announce that the developer – Liberty Properties – was in breach of their agreement by not funding post-excavation adequately following the excavations at the HQ building revealing graves from Chester’s Benedictine nunnery. The website of Earthworks Archaeology – the commercial archaeologists who excavated the remains associated with the Benedictine Nunnery -says that post-excavation is ‘under way’. Again, I am not criticising the archaeologists, this is simply an example of a range of scenarios in which the medieval dead are disturbed and yet their remains are not fully studied in the fashion that they should.

Equally, there are many thousands of medieval graves, situated in archives, publications, that still have many exciting stories to tell us. They may not be ‘famous’ people, but their graves and remains demand further study. Indeed, we have a professional and academic obligration to tell their story as often and as forcefully, as we study the tombs of the wealthy and those for whom we can give bones a name. This is especially true when, through many centuries of reuse, it is evident that many medieval graves have been destroyed through recutting and reuse. Articulated, disarticulated, rich or poor, it is shameful if we chase kings and avoid the rest. So here, it is truly wrong, not that we have dug up Richard III, but that others are neglected and the public don’t seem to be worried.

Worshipping Dead Royals
The third objectionable aspect of the excavation of Richard III is the royal cult of personality that surrounded the excavation and the respect shown to his remains. I personally don’t have time for those that fawn over present-day living royals and their sprogs, but it seems somehow cut-rate and sordid to be fawning over long-dead royals in the hope of ‘rewriting the history books’ or getting to know their true person through their bodies. I can imagine the same sensitive facial reconstructions done for the butchers of the 20th century and imagine cult followers shedding tears over their sensitive small moustaches and their kind eyes.

Now I am sure Will, Kate and little baby George are all lovely. Even the Duke of Edinburgh makes me laugh. However, this royal necrophilia gets right up my archaeonose. Rather than the scientific study of human remains to understand life and death, this becomes a faux-forensic investigation into the individual’s life and death. Whether hero or villain, it is ironic that our obsession with the remains of the individual cadaver of Richard III flies in the face of the aspirations we have as a discipline for writing about the past in a social and humanising way.  Implicated in this view is that only rich and powerful people in the past matter today. In other words; the bones of toffs are venerated today as sacred, the bones of plebs are trowel fodder.

There is a strong case for Leicester cathedral to create a medieval equivalent to Westminster Abbey’s ‘tomb of the unknown soldier’. If you want to spend a million, select one of the many thousands of medieval graves we archaeologists have dug up – an old woman who died of leprosy, an infant who died in childbirth – and create a monument for them that makes us reflect on present-day poverty in the rest of the world and how many millions live in poverty today and die in agony from curable diseases. Don’t honour a warmongering royal, honour humanity.


This is an archaeorant, not a piece of considered academic writing. It is meant to make you think, not to present fully formed academic arguments. Still, I hope it reveals some of the problems we as archaeologist face in making our discoveries public and engaging in public debates surrounding the human dead.

As stated above, this is not a criticism of the archaeological project to excavation Richard III’s remains per se. The project seems to be heading towards being a success in terms of new research and ‘impact’. Digging up the ancient dead, named or name(s) unknown, is not in itself always ethically problematic and, indeed, it has a long history within Western culture and archaeological practice.  The archaeologists were right to take the opportunity to explore the Leicester friary site.

However, there remains a series of distastful aspects to the digging up and study of Richard III relating to its context and consumption. The cult of the individual royal, the fact that it detracts attention from many of the key questions archaeologists are now able to answer about the Middle Ages thanks to many other excavations of churches, tombs and populations of skeletons, and the myopic focus upon Richard III’s bones might be obscuring the very real scandals taking place in how many thousands of skeletons are neglected or receive only limited archaeological treatment post-excavation. So for me, Richard III’s grave is interesting and worthy as a focus of archaeological research. But in terms of the broader public engagement with medieval burial archaeology, Richard III is as much a curse as he is a blessing. I am not convinced that this is a good example of how stakeholders’ research agenda, and archaeological ones, are satisfactorily accommodated, as the Antiquity article suggests.

As for where should he be buried? Who cares? And if you do care, ask yourself: why?