Sunday, 29 March 2015

Richard III

I know I have blogged about Richard III before, when his remains were found in a car park in Leicester in September 2012, but I think the reburial of the King deserves another blog.

On 26 March, 2015, Richard III was buried at Leicester Cathedral.

Richard III, the final ruler of the Plantagenet dynasty, was killed on 22 August 1485 in the Battle of Bosworth Field, the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses. His body was taken to Greyfriars Friary in Leicester, where it was buried in a crude grave in the friary church. In 1495, ten years after the burial, Henry VII paid for a marble and alabaster monument to mark Richard's grave. Following the friary's dissolution in 1538 and subsequent demolition, Richard's tomb was lost. An account arose that Richard's bones had been thrown into the River Soar at the nearby Bow Bridge.

A search for Richard's body began in August 2012, initiated by the Looking for Richard project with the support of the Richard III Society. The archaeological excavation was led by the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, working in partnership with Leicester City Council. On the first day a human skeleton belonging to a man in his thirties was uncovered showing signs of severe injuries. The skeleton, which had several unusual physical features, most notably a severe curvature of the back was exhumed to allow scientific analysis. Examination showed that the man had probably been killed either by a blow from a large bladed weapon, probably a halberd, which cut off the back of his skull and exposed the brain, or by a sword thrust that penetrated all the way through the brain. Other wounds on the skeleton had probably occurred after death as "humiliation injuries", inflicted as a form of posthumous revenge.

The age of the bones at death matched that of Richard when he was killed; they were dated to about the period of his death and were mostly consistent with physical descriptions of the king. Preliminary DNA analysis showed that mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones matched that of two matrilineal descendants, one 17th-generation and the other 19th-generation, of Richard's sister Anne of York. Taking these findings into account along with other historical, scientific and archaeological evidence, the University of Leicester announced on 4 February 2013 that it had concluded beyond reasonable doubt that the skeleton was that of Richard III.

As a condition of being allowed to disinter the skeleton, the archaeologists agreed that, if Richard were found, his remains would be reburied in Leicester Cathedral. A controversy arose as to whether an alternative reburial site, York Minster or Westminster Abbey, would be more suitable.

I watched the ceremony on TV and thought it was fantastic - if you haven't had a chance to watch it yet, check out the highlights online.


Sunday, 15 March 2015

Big Breakthroughs In Archaeology

Whilst I am a historian, and mostly tend to blog about history, I recently read a very interesting article on the importance of archaeology for history (and other purposes). Therefore I have decided to blog on a few recent big archaeological discoveries.

2014 saw the completion of an impressive survey to map the hidden landscape of the Salisbury plain. Stonehenge has long been known to be part of a wider complex of monuments, but the area still holds surprises, and this research provides a glimpse into just how intensively that landscape was used over a period of about 11,000 years.

This year archaeologists have discovered a serious shift in climate that happened 2,500 years ago.
Population collapse at the end of the European Bronze Age is thought to have been caused by rapid climate change. However, new research shows that the decline in population began over a century before climate change set in. Researchers now think that it was the increasing demand for iron towards the start of the Iron Age that was to blame, which undermined local economies and disrupted trade.

A new study of 325,000-year-old artefacts has forced archaeologists to re-think the development of very early technologies. A revolutionary stone tool technology called Levallois was thought to have been invented only in Africa, spreading through Europe and Asia as populations expanded. However, archaeologists looking at stone tools from a site in Armenia think that the specialised technology also developed independently there, highlighting the creativity of these early groups.

Another innovation has been uncovered during analysis of the Staffordshire hoard. Anglo Saxon goldsmiths used a sophisticated technique to remove copper and silver from the surfaces of gold objects, making them appear more "golden". Not only did this give the impression that the gold was more valuable than it was, the different colours of gold made the designs more striking.

Further light was shed on medieval skeletons from Poland whose manner of burial - with sickles across their necks, for example - suggest villagers feared they would rise again as vampires. The burials coincide with cholera outbreaks, hinting that they may be victims of the disease. In September, researchers in Siberia reported finding a suit of armour made from animal bones which they believe could date to between 3,500 and 3,900 years ago. The experts believe the armour may have been manufactured for an elite warrior.  Two men whose remains were excavated from graves in western China were buried with the earliest known examples of trousers. With straight-fitting legs and a wide crotch, the Bronze Age slacks resemble those worn today for horse riding.

Links between seafaring nations of the southern hemisphere have been explored this year, with Tonga revealed to be at the centre of an extensive island empire from 1200 AD. Tonga interacted with far groups of islands via long-distance voyages, with stone tools traded over distances of up to 2,500km. Discoveries like this early canoe (below) from New Zealand shed light on the seafaring capabilities of the Polynesians

New genetics research shows just how far this seafaring prowess might have stretched. DNA analysis of Easter Islanders found that they had Native American ancestry as well as Polynesian and European genetic heritage. While the European ancestry dates from the 18th century, the American connection occurred 200-400 years earlier. It is likely that Polynesians made the challenging journey from Easter Island to the South American mainland and back - a round trip of almost 8000km. This might also explain how the sweet potato - native to South America - became established in Polynesia before European contact.

The discovery in New Zealand of a beautifully constructed 15th century canoe, plus details of the prevailing winds that helped them on their way, sheds more light on how Polynesians travelled so widely. Eyes will also be on the replica canoes that set sail on a worldwide voyage with no navigational equipment, to demonstrate the capacity of such vessels to traverse extreme distances over the oceans.

Physicists may have shed light on how the ancient Egyptians shifted such large stone blocks. In another attempt to replicate early engineering, a team of physicists have joined the quest to explain how ancient Egyptians pulled heavy stone blocks on sledges across the desert. They found a simple solution: wetting the sand in front of the sledges can halve the pulling force required - as can be seen in murals on the walls of a 4000-year-old tomb.

Finally, analysis of Richard III's teeth has been able to pinpoint where he lived throughout his childhood. Growing up in the east of England, he moved west by the age of seven. Analysis of his bones also confirmed the kingly lifestyle of his later life, feasting on rich foods and - perhaps unsurprisingly - an increasing amount of wine.