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Monday 4th February 2013
I tuned into the Richard III skellington news conference just in time to see it announced that the body discovered WAS indeed the wicked, murderous king (though to be fair those attributes did not really differentiate him from any other medieval monarch). It was a shame, because after all the build-up it would have been great if they just said, "Yeah, sorry it wasn't him. Could have told you at the start. Bit of an anticlimax."
The archaeologists and historians seemed a bit pleased with themselves for my liking. You've just discovered some bones, people. It's not like you located a bit box of treasure of the Holy Grail. That's what archaeology is all about. The Holy Grail is literally the Holy Grail for archaeologists and until they find that I am not interested in anything they have to say. How hard can it be to find? It's the magic cup that Jesus drank out of that will confer immortality on to anyone who drinks from it and has a genie inside who will give you three wishes. It's not like anyone is going to chuck that away. It's probably on someone's sideboard right now in plain view and the rubbish archaeologists are too busy grubbing around in fields and car parks to find it.
And if you're going to celebrate finding a dead king's skull then you should at least have thrown it down the line of academics rugby style and then drunk champagne out of it. Or the blood of some virgins. Who shouldn't be hard to discover given you all work in the archaeology department! Slam!
My favourite tweet of the day came from The Wurzels. It's a whiskery old joke, but the fact it came from the Wurzels makes it work for me somehow - "@TheWurzels: Richard III has finally been declared "1485 Hide 'n Seek Champion"." Come on that's pretty good. Although if I was going to get pedantic there are a whole lot of people from 1485 who are still hiding under the ground and will probably never be found. So the Wurzels lose a point. I love the Wurzels. I love them.
I watched the beginning of the Channel 4 programme about the discovery of the skellington, which was interesting. I suspect that the producers started out initially thinking this might be a bit of a comedy programme. Some slightly eccentric people from the Richard III society (a group dedicated to restoring the reputation of the monarch who they think was unfairly maligned by the Tudors - maybe true, but in a all likelihood the man was still a monster, because everyone was) obsessed with finding their hero, thinking they have found proof that he's buried under a car park. It's a comedy documentary with an outside chance of turning up a king. But I think they assumed that the dig would be a failure, so they had it hosted by the bloke from Horrible Histories (the very funny Simon Farnaby, but not someone you'd necessarily employ if you thought you were about to find a king) who can pull a bit of a face when the history nuts start thinking that an R painted on the tarmac is significant or discuss the fact that they have a feeling they're standing on the grave.
But rather wonderfully the kooks turn out to be pretty much right about it all - the skellington is found straight away, right by the R (or so they claim, be interesting to know how close the proximity) and it has holes in the right place and a snaking spine and a bit of metal lodged in its bones.
It was interesting to see that the woman from the Richard III society had mixed feelings about the spinal deformity. She so wanted to prove that the hunchback was a fiction that in the moment of being told about it she almost seems to believe that this proves the bones aren't those of the king. Even though to anyone else this is an astonishing vindication and the documentary makers realise that almost accidentally they have hit pay-dirt. It's great.
There was also an amazing scene where the Richard III fans want the bones carried from the dig draped in the standard of the king. You can see their reasoning. This might well be a king of England and there should surely be some ceremony. But then again the other people on the dig are scientists, requiring proof, however tantalising the circumstantial evidence. Plus the bones are in a cardboard box anyway which rather diminishes the ceremony.
They are granted permission to do so (and you can see why - after all without them and their belief none of this would be happening), but when they ask the academic who dug up the bones to carry the box she says she doesn't want to. She feels uncomfortable, after all there is no proof, these bones might be someone else's. And it's not a very scientific way to proceed. So the compromise is made for one of the Richard III society people to carry the cardboard box covered in a flag. Which is then placed in the back of a white transit van, a bit awkwardly as there's loads of other stuff in there. Again the formality and respect are lost a little there, especially as the box doesn't quite fit in the space. All it needs is for someone to say "A hearse, a hearse, my kingdom for a hearse", but we're in a weird place where everyone has to be respectful, whilst being weirded out by the slightly cack-handed attempt at pageantry.
I had to pause the programme here so I don't know what happened next, but that scene is my TV highlight of the year so far, perfectly encapsulating the awkwardness between two different worlds, both operating in the same sphere. The people who want to believe so much that an R on the tarmac is significant, against people who need proof. And who know in their hearts that as newsworthy and exciting as this discovery could be, it's not really what archaeology is about.
What archaeology is about is finding the Holy Grail or at least the Ark of the Covenant. Before some Nazis do.
Seriously, finding a king is cool, but the archaeologists know in their hearts that their job is about much more than this, it's about discovering the truth about the past, not about unearthing celebrities. And yet unearthing celebrities will give a glamour to their profession and generate more publicity than any of the other amazing work they do. It's an uneasy alliance that reminds me of the Liberal Democrats agreeing to join with the Conservatives in government. Even as it's happening they know that it seems like a good thing and there is nothing they can do to stop this, but that it might not actually be the best for them. The unease was palpable. It was inappropriate to have the flag and yet also inappropriate not to
This box draped in a flag perfectly encapsulates the grey area that archaeology was stepping into. And it's also a grey area for the programme-makers too. It's delightfully eccentric as they were probably hoping for, but the eccentrics have turned into winners. What a remarkable thirty seconds of TV that is.
I can't wait to see the rest of the programme.
Nor indeed to see the bones of the king in the flesh (so to speak). Because I am equally historically conflicted.
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