A king and a cardinal

The day started early when I arrived at the office at 7.30am to my desk in the planning department. Up on the 11th floor of our aging glass and concrete building I opened my email and commented on the possible archaeological implications to a planning application. It’s all fairly standard and corporate stuff. The day then got more corporate when, at 10am, all the folk in the planning service gathered for a briefing in the central part of our office. It is all about what the service is to do in light of Government policy, how the service needs to improve the time in which planning applications are to be processed, and what may happen in light of further cuts to Government grants.

From here on in the day perked-up considerably:

As some of you may recall Leicester was the scene of some attention a six months ago when it was officially announced that the skeleton found some five months earlier, in a blast of publicity, was indeed that of Richard III. It all goes to show that you never really know what is buried beneath the surface. In the early stages of this project, some 18 months before, I recall saying to Richard Buckley, the Project Director. ‘You do realise that there is no chance of finding him. Most likely his remains will have gone long ago, but at least we may get to know something about the long lost friary.’

How wrong can you be? Not long after the trial trenching started, the bucket of the mechanical excavator encountered human remains. However, it was a few days and a lot more digging before the excavators realised that this skeleton was in roughly the location described in contemporary documents; in the west end (choir) of the chancel of the church, and returned to carefully exhume the remains in such a way as to preserve as much of the evidence as possible before it was taken to the lab.

Following the confirmation that the remains were those of the infamous (or should that be much-maligned?) King, the City Mayor acted swiftly and purchased a disused school next to the now famous car park. The school is to be transformed into a new Richard III visitor centre which is due to be opened next Spring. There is to be an entrance lobby to the visitor centre, occupying part of what was formerly the school yard. So the people who excavated the site last year returned to the site a couple of weeks ago. All that was seen of the chancel last year were a couple of 2m wide slots, this time they have investigated the majority of the chancel, giving them the chance to clear-up some of their previous misapprehensions and to recover three of the skeletons identified last year, so that they can be analysed in the lab.

The previous day the widely publicised lead coffin and the remains it contained had been removed from its resting place in a stone coffin. A host of VIPs had also visit the site on that day (the City Mayor, the Secretary of State at the DCMS and various people who decide on the City of Culture bid). I had decided to avoid this circus and take, Mike, our Head of Service to see the site. I took Mike onto the viewing platform. But the crowd was such that it was difficult to see much, so I took him round to the site itself, and got Matt, the site Director, to explain the site to him. Matt’s team were a vastly experienced group, and had done a great job exposing the remains and lifting the bodies.

The afternoon was spent on my only substantive contribution to the Festival of Archaeology. I crossed town to Leicester Abbey, where the Parks Service was hosting its own activity afternoon and where Cardinal Wolsey is believed to have been laid to rest. After spending some time chatting to some of the visitors, I gave a guided tour of the Abbey ruins. It was a lovely, sunny afternoon and the group I was guiding was a wonderfully varied group comprised of schoolchildren, young women with babies and toddlers in buggies, several adults and the usual smattering of retired people. It was a pleasure to share my enthusiasm for the site with them.