And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 4. februar 2013

The Greyfriars Skeleton - A Case for History

 Richard III's motto, photo taken at the Richard III Museum in York

From 10.00 to 11.00 AM GMT today there was held a press conference in Leicester presenting the verdict on the so-called Greyfriars Skeleton, which was unearthed in an archaeological excavation beneath a Leicester car park in September last year. The excavation was organised in a joint venture by Leicester University, the Richard III Society and Leicester City Council, and its specific purpose was to find the remains of King Richard III, who was said to have been laid to rest in a church now lost. When the skeleton was found, its spinal curvature prompted speculations on whether this could be the infamous king, immortalised by William Shakespeare as a monstrous hunchback, and it seemed indeed as if the excavation had found exactly what it sought to find. On today's press conference, the team of archaeologists from Leicester University - headed by Richard Buckley - presented their skeletal evidence, the historiographical evidence and ultimately the DNA results in an orderly and sober fashion. The academic verdict of the team was that the skeleton "beyond reasonable doubt" belonged to the last Plantagenet king.

The conference attracted great attention both in the UK and abroad, and it was a much-anticipated event for historians and lay enthusiasts alike. The case is - by the time I write this - the most viewed news-report on BBC's homepage, and on twitter Richard III has been trending for hours as a consequence. Following the verdict, the University of Leicester launched a new website about the excavation, and I'm confident we will see many more activities pertaining to the unearthed king in the foreseeable future.

 Greyfriars, Leicester. Map taken from wikimedia

The resounding enthusiasm has, unsurprisingly, found its counterpart in certain sceptical and/or dismissive voices. This is of course a natural reaction, and academics are, after all, required by their work description to be sceptical about these things. Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian, for instance, commented that this was "not really history, not in any meaningful sense ", and that the ultimate importance of the "jamboree" was raising awareness of the university, attract interested people to the discipline of archaeology by showcasing how experts work and, finally, to secure funding.

Personally, I believe Higgins's article, while raising an important concern, is too insistent upon its own scepticism to comprehend the big picture. That the three points she mentioned were achieved is - like the identity of the skeleton - beyond reasonable doubt, and they are all three truly important. However, the fact that we now have identified the remains of a historical person, allows us to realign the facts we knew and the myths we believed into a picture more fitting with the most recently unearthed facts. This is indeed history in a meaningful sense.

However, I also believe that the verdict concerning the identity of the Greyfriars skeleton was not the most important aspect of today's conference. During the conference, as the experts presented the various facts they had discovered - tacitly and carefully tying it into the big question of whether this was Richard, while still withholding the ultimate verdict - it struck me that regardless the end result of the conference, this event had already proved its big importance. The most important aspect of today's conference was not the identity of the skeleton, but rather showing how much people actually care about history and that history is not merely a thing of the past.

Today's verdict may be refuted in times to come when technology has become even more refined, and people will eventually grow accustomed to the revisions and confirmations of historical facts today's verdict has provided. However, to my mind the conference is a firm proof that historians and archaeologists are needed in today's society, that they play their roles and that their endeavours are justified by the enthusiasm of both professionals and layfolk alike. In an age where there is a demand for solid and tangible results in academia, events like this show that not only do humanists achieve results, but that the populace eagerly anticipates and show enthusiasm over these results. There is, in other words, sufficient interest in history to not only justify but necessitate professional historians and archaeologists, in order to unearth and ultimately make sense of new facts. Whatever the duration of today's verdict in Leicester, this particular aspect will stand the test of time.

2 kommentarer:

  1. Well said Steffen! I think if this gets someone to read a history book or search for historical information, that makes it all worthwhile. Great post!

  2. Thank you, glad you enjoyed it! And yes, so much of what historians - professionals or amateurs - do, revolves around bringing history to other people. The press conference at Leicester was sterling work in that regard.