The Chiddingly Boar- Richard III's personal device, which helped archaeologists
locate Bosworth Field in 1999
Unfolding coverage of the site has generated huge excitement since the choir of the Grey Friars church was first located in August, consistent with the site of chronicler John Rous’ description of the King’s burial. All the signs look good. The bones have now been removed from their resting place and transported to the laboratories of Leicester University. While their delicate work continues, DNA evidence will not be available until at least December, some time after which, their identity will finally be confirmed. Predictably, there is huge interest in the findings. Various images of the dig have been published, including those of the press crowding around men dressed in late medieval armour. It is also possible to view online galleries containing other finds, such as tiles and pieces of masonry and to visit the site on heritage open days. The closest the public can get to the bones though, is to view the scraped-out hole where they were found, which now lies empty. Richard III is still missing in action.
It's not as if the public have not seen human remains before. Regular viewers of popular archaeological and historical television programmes like Channel Four’s “Time Team” are used to seeing various skeletal remains being unearthed, removed and examined in situ. We see fragments of skulls, finger bones and pelvises gently lifted out and shown the consideration and respect by those involved. After all, as these popular archaeologists are quick to establish, these were real people, whose burials were carried out according to the religious sensibilities of the day. Their wishes must be respected. Such programmes also make clear that if there is any doubt regarding the dating of human remains, the local constabulary need to be informed.
This media exposure may be partly responsible for the frustration arising from Leicester University's decision. Their explanation, of the department’s policy of respect due to any burial regardless of identity, is unambiguous and understandable. It is in line with the best archaeological practise as outlined in a 2005 English heritage report. However, the issue does raise further questions regarding the morality and ethics of the handling of human remains and the question of public interest. For some, it seems to be a thorny issue as to whether bones which have been exposed, dismantled and physically removed from their grave, could be violated further by the taking of photographs. Does it make any difference to a dead man's bones, or his soul (consistent with his religious beliefs) if his image is captured in this way?
Museum displays of locks of the hair of historical figures regularly attract interest but sometimes invoke a shudder of repulsion. Some people find it ghoulish to have these preserved. The hair of Mary Tudor and Katherine Parr, which has been kept inside lockets, may be of legitimate interest to students of the Tudor period, interested to verify written sources of those women’s appearances. However, given the Victorian passion for using hair in mourning jewellery, would those students be as comfortable with bracelets or even whole pictures made from woven human hair? How about hair pieces and wigs that use the locks of impoverished or dead girls? There does seem to be a subtle distinction in the use of the hair, depending upon whether it is displayed simply as a memorial piece, or if its purpose has been adapted to create a piece of art. Perhaps this is the line of sensibility where some people may find its use unacceptable. But then hair is dead. It can be cut from the body during life without causing harm.
The hair of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's younger sister.
The hair of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII's sixth wife.
Victorian designs for mourning jewellery
Modern hair jewellery- beautiful or odd?
Also, there is the question of whether we need to see these bones ? Or is it just that we want to ? After all, bones are just bones, aren’t they ? Actually, no. Not in this case, when they may provide critical visual evidence regarding the possible curvature of the King’s spine and manner of his death. Of course, we trust the archaeologists to make a full and truthful report of their findings but if books on the Princes in the Tower can include photographs of the skull of the nine-year-old Anne de Mowbray, wife of Prince Richard of York, can we not also expect these bones to be photographed for future publications ? There is nothing so inspiring for the student of history to get up close and personal with the past: such connections bring home the humanity of distant figures and rightly or wrongly, give the observer a thrill of association. Some may call this ghoulish, others may see it as legitimate interest. Whilst it will be impossible to exclude those whose interest is purely voyeuristic, this must be balanced against genuine scientific education and archaeological ethics. If the bones are ever photographed or put on display, it must be done so with the respect and consideration that Richard's beliefs and rank deserve.
The skull of Anne de Mowbray, often featured in C15th history books