Popularizing Archaeology: Richard III and Archaeological Theater

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III shows him in about 1520.

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III shows him in about 1520.

This week no archaeological story has received more press than the confirmation that a skeleton excavated in Leicester in September 2012 is indeed the mortal remains of Richard III, the last Plantangenet King of England.  Archaeology often is aesthetically compelling and provides a fascinating narrative, and in this case a thorough and compelling scientific study and the tale of a king slain in battle, ending his line in the ignominy of an anonymous hastily dug grave, is especially captivating.  The presentation of that data on Monday—and some observers’ qualms about how such scholarship is presented in public space—actually sound some interesting questions about the public presentation of archaeology.

Richard III’s two year reign ended in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field, which ended the War of the Roses and ushered in the Tudor dynasty.  Richard’s corpse reportedly was stripped, thrown across horseback, and taken to nearby Leicester, where it was on view in the church of the Greyfriars and subsequently buried.  The church itself was razed during the 1530’s dissolution of the monasteries, and for over four centuries Richard’s mortal remains were lost.

In September 2012 the University of Leicester Archaeological Services conducted an excavation in a parking lot at the likely Greyfriars site.  The Leicester archaeologists were sober about the likelihood they would recover Richard III, but they recognized the site would certainly provide medieval and post-medieval material, and they conducted a radar survey and the subsequent excavations.  Against all odds a skeleton was identified on the first day of excavations.  The remains had severe wounds and a pronounced skeletal curvature suggesting the body could be that of Richard III, and carbon dating, osteological analysis, and DNA testing with Richard’s living descendants demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the body was indeed that of Richard III.

The University of Leicester was justifiably proud of their ULAS excavation team, and on February 4th they had an elaborate public program at which the Leicester scholars presented the results of their analyses.  The unveiling of the rich archaeological data and the fascinating detective tale conducted by the Leicester archaeological team was good theater, and I was among the archaeology geeks who woke up before daybreak to watch the news being streamed and monitor twitter as the analysis was shared publicly for the first time.

The excavated skull identified as Richard III (image University of Leicester).

The excavated skull identified as Richard III (image University of Leicester).

Yet a few voices have expressed chagrin at the corporate overtones of a scholarly presentation that for some critics seemed orchestrated for the benefit of university fund-raising or to boost Midlands’ tourist business. For instance, Mary Beard complained in The Times Literary Supplement that “What put me off was a nexus of things to do with funding, university PR, the priority of the media over peer review, and hype … plus the sense that–intriguing as this was, a nice face to face moment with a dead king–there wasn’t all that much history there, in the sense that I understand it.”  Bristol Professor Neville Morley whined that “I know it’s all about money; the publicity fluff is a means of getting funding for more serious research … But at what point does the publicity game take over, and the need for a gimmick to ‘justify’ the project start becoming the real driver of the project?”

The Leicester team’s scholarship certainly is rigorous, well-defended, and absolutely compelling, and many of the critics at least circumspectly accepts their conclusions.  Yet Neville Morley is skeptical if not contemptuous of the project’s significance, arguing that “the newsworthiness of an archaeological discovery is probably in inverse proportion to its actual significance, certainly if the excitement about this one is anything to go by.  On balance – and in the absence of any of the detailed evidence – it looks like it is the body of Richard, but I don’t think that tells us anything very interesting either way.”  The Guardian’s culture blogger Charlotte Higgins reduced the press conference to interesting but shallow artifice meant to demonstrate public impact, raise money for the University, and masquerade as “good” scholarship: “Yes, no doubt it will help the department secure funding (which is surely what all the jamboree was about, in the end). All of that is fine. But it’s not really history, not in any meaningful sense.”

What these comments reveal has nothing to do with the scholarly impact of the Leicester project.  These relatively isolated voices refuse to accept that some essential dimension of good scholarship can in fact be informed by popular curiosity.  As Morley and Higgins retreat back to the ivory tower, most academics like the scholars in the ULAS are actively part of their communities and doing rigorous scholarship that weighs popular curiosity and does not have the audacity to suggest that there are some timeless scholarly questions impervious to the sands of time or the sentiments of society.  The University of Leicester page detailing the excavations is indeed a clever and thorough presentation that recognizes the popularity of archaeology as well as this particular historical narrative, and their telling is good science and good story-telling.

The Richard III skeleton in situ (image University of Leicester).

The Richard III skeleton in situ (image University of Leicester).

These kinds of scholars resisting popular culture are increasingly rare, repelled by the impression of the popular on any academic scholarship.  Some academics want to present their research, science, and knowledge in particular sort of conventional forms and are not warm to the notion of press conferences and half-hour television shows.  Beard ostensibly fears that such orchestrated presentations untrack the scientific process, expressing reservations over “a complicated bit of scientific analysis being given its first outing in a Press Conference, not ever having been through the process of peer review. DNA evidence is tricky and any scientist would want their results peer evaluated before going completely public. … But the idea of the publication of research by press conference isn’t one I feel very comfortable with (as a member of the public, I want not just a story, but a validated story).”  But this aside is really only a smokescreen for her anxiety over “the question of whether media interest starts to set research agendas. This runs through many areas, but especially archaeology. … I’m quite prepared to believe that this skeleton is Richard III (he’s where we would have expected him after all) — but he is part of a climate which pushes people to celebrity history and archaeology, and may even detract from more important work that doesn’t have that glitz.”

The increasingly common presentation of archaeology in popular media and as a media-friendly face for the academy inevitably casts archaeology in stereotypical ways.  Can television shows or thorough press conference like the ULAS session actually capture a complex archaeological analysis?  Maybe the more challenging question is instead can archaeology make the complexities of past experiences and materiality interesting in a more satisfying way than popular culture?  I believe in scholarly rigor and understand that complex historical and academic narratives cannot be easily reduced to palatable popular representations, but every archaeological and historical narrative is inevitably itself “incomplete” or might be interpreted in fresh ways by other scholars.  I am not very sympathetic to the judgmental voices that believe archaeology in particular and academic knowledge in general must take a highly specific form, and it at best suggests a lack of creativity to be unable to fathom that interesting and academically relevant research questions can be asked of essentially any material data.

Richard III skull image and Richard III in situ image courtesy University of Leicester


Posted on February 5, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I agree! It seems appropriate to give a timely, public treatment to the general public, and save the academic treatments for the academic papers… 🙂

  2. I really enjoyed this discussion (though I would say that I was fulminating rather than whining, or muttering,..) and will happily agree that the Leicester team did a brilliant job in presenting the material in a clear, sensible and highly accessible way. My concern was much less with the presentation – I am absolutely committed to taking research findings out to a general audience – than with the underlying research questions. This is partly because I’m an economic and social historian with little time for traditional kings’n’battles history, but also because I spend a fair amount of time engaging with archaeologists and archaeological evidence. My question in response to your argument would be this: is any publicity good publicity? Does it matter what kind of impression is being given of archaeology as a discipline?

    It’s possible that I’m just rather old-fashioned in this, shaped by the debates of the early 90s, but my sense was that many archaeologists were determined to organise their research around specifically archaeological questions and problems, rather than – as had long been the case, cf. tendency to attribute any destruction layer in a building to the closest available battle – simply operating as handmaidens to the historians, gathering evidence to be deployed in addressing the questions that historians felt were important. Excavation was to be about answering research questions, not treasure-hunting or just focusing on prestigious elite buildings; survey was to be about reconstructing the development of the landscape rather than just looking for battle sites, and so forth.

    My basic worry is that archaeology appeared in this instance not as a free-standing discipline with its own agenda but as a set of sophisticated scientific and analytical techniques in the service of a very conventional historical question; in other words, defined by practices rather than ideas or theories. I’m perfectly well aware that this project isn’t typical – but you say yourself that “the increasingly common presentation of archaeology in popular media and as a media-friendly face for the academy inevitably casts archaeology in stereotypical ways”, and that’s exactly what bothered me.

    • “Whine” was indeed an unintentionally judgmental choice of verb on my part, and I accept fulminating was in fact a more accurate picture of your sentiments. I suspect you and many of our colleagues are primarily unsettled by the media’s reduction of this project simply to a very particularistic message about simply finding a monarch’s skeleton, and the press has in fact had relatively little to say about the broader scholarly questions we might ask with this particular skeleton. I do think these things are in the minds of the Leicester team, but much of this relatively unique presentation of archaeological data in a press conference did revolve around finding the monarch’s bones and documenting his post mortem trail to the parking lot; I agree that this was a fascinating tale of recovery, but in the long run it risks failing to pose a concrete research question in media coverage ignores those more complex questions. I suspect we are in general agreement over press coverage and publicity–I am not absolutely convinced that in most cases it secures anything tangible, and it is always going to attempt to reduce complex messages to shallow pictures of what we do. But I cannot blame the Leicester colleagues for at least trying to seize the initiative and control the message as much as they can, since interest in these particular bones and parking lot are unique. But I accept your concern that what happens to their message when it gets in the press and how that paints archaeology is in fact worth a little apprehension.
      Thanks for the thoughts, I suspect in retrospect we probably share fundamentally similar feelings about archaeological publicity.

      • I think we are indeed largely in agreement on a lot of this; no, I really can’t blame Leicester colleagues either, and I can just imagine how much of a struggle they may have had to get the press conference set up like that, rather than being forced to dumb down. My lament about the fact that every find has to be Cleopatra’s chamber pot or the like was – albeit too loosely phrased – a lament about the state of the world rather than a criticism of the archaeologists who find themselves having to present their finds in this way. Equally, there are lots of decent research questions that can be illuminated by considering this find in broader contexts – C15 nutrition, for example, as someone suggested on my blog. The question of identity is by far the least interesting.

  3. Most arcaheology in UK is commercial and is led by planning. condiserations with time and money being uppermost. I won’t bore you with
    .my own horror stories of archaeology being destroyed as it lay outside an arbitrary line where everyone one knew would be destroyed by a heavy machine to make their work easier but the archies weren’t allowed to touch. The archaeologists in ULAS never expected to find the body of Richard IIII but took the opportunity of funding in the hope of locating the Greyfriars church and precinct. The odds of hitting both the choir and the body is most of the greatest pieces of luck in archaeological history. Does the find alter history- hardly. The documentary evidence pointed to his burial there including the later building of a tomb. His curved was curved – yes but how does affect our general analysis of character – only a little.The find is now doubt good for the university and city. It can help populise history and archaeology to people who really don’t share my interest in the finer points of 15th century material culture, economy and and social theory. The whole project is being portrayed by the marketing men and has been a bit nauseous at times to the point of being counter productive. However, we need to remember archaeologists and historians are a luxury- if we don’t engage the public we can soon cease to be paid- note what has happened to Parks Canada recently in one of the world’s strongest economies.

  4. I think if Shakespeare hadn’t written about him no one would have cared. All older people like me as soon as we hear ‘Richard the Third’ think of Laurence Olivier skulking about hunched over and grimacing/leering dragging one foot along the floor in a pointy shoe. Here in Sydney Australia I heard excitedly on the radio “Oh I can’t tell you anything about it. We have to wait until 9pm!!” That was the worst part for me and totally put me off. The embargo and the manufactured suspense to find out if was it him.
    But I’m glad to see here the photo of the skeleton in situ. I wanted to see if he really had scoliosis. I saw the skeleton laid out on black velvet and I was skeptical about whether the spine was really found like that. All the publicity was very popular here. The next day 2 people asked me about it. I am a consultant historical archaeologist and last week an architect, a prospective client, asked me do we do it like on TV, with little brushes. He was pleased to hear we use a backhoe as much as possible. There is so much archaeology and forensic science on TV here now. Last night I saw a show about a black man found in a medieval grave in Ipswich with not the archaeologist who excavated it but a bone expert leading the chase and a lot of other experts, incl. of course a face reconstructionist.
    But how they tell it on TV and how archaeology is done by practitioners here is v like Paul Courtney said. We excavate before development; most of the archaeologists working are engaged as consultants to excavate before a new building is going up, only within the curtelige of the development area. We are in and out, with the developer paying as little money as he possible can. (all are he’s) Its the strength of the heritage legislation that allows us to do it at all, and we have a very good Heritage Act in New South Wales. We have to compete against each other for tenders, so there is very little collegiality; a lot of hyperbole (I wanted to say bull….) by some companies about how wonderful they are etc. etc. Anyhow I won’t rave on about it. I like this blog and will keep on looking at it. Just found it by a roundabout way (like R III’s spine).

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