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SKEPTOID BLOG:

Some More News from the Friar Lane

by Bruno Van de Casteele

March 15, 2015

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Donate In October 2013 I followed up on on the Greyfriars archaeological site in Leicester, UK, where the remains of King Richard III were found by a team from the University of Leicester. Although the excavations were specifically targeted to find the remains of the last English king to die in battle, they also yielded a lot of information on the Greyfriars monastery and church. As I noted in another article, it was really odd to notice that the location was also Friar Lane, even though the monastery was torn down in the 16th century.

There is now another follow-up that is going around, namely that another coffin was found very close to the place where the last Plantagenet king was laid to rest. The nearness is not unusual, as burial places are quickly forgotten, within a timespan of tens of years (as I wrote elsewhere but other examples exist). It is therefore quite certain that the people burying their king were not aware of the other burials nearby.

That coffin was an amazing find: an intact stone coffin, with an almost intact lead coffin contained within it (an extremely rare find). In my previous article, I had noted that researchers established that the body inside is a woman whose identity we will probably never know, but this is just fine.

And indeed, we still do not know, and probably never will. However, some more information is now making the rounds in the British press. It has been established through osteopathic analysis that the interred woman was at least 60 years old and, through carbon dating, that she was buried maybe in the latter half of the 13th century, meaning very close to the construction date of the church. As speculated earlier, it is quite possible that this woman was very important to the monastery, perhaps being a benefactor of the construction.

These are not spectacular results, and I have the feeling that it only gets reported in the press because of the link with Richard III. Scientific results of this significance are routine for any decent archaeology department across the world. I'm happy they're being made, however, as it helps the public understanding of archaeology, and might get young people motivated for a career in archaeology or some other science.

A nice addition to this story was recently posted to YouTube by the university. It's a video explaining the discovery and initial research on the coffin. It's only five minutes long, and I recommend it highly.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXvvV9WQ_1c

In it the researchers speculate a bit who the elderly woman could have been (they have a name that could maybe fit), showing that archaeological digs go hand-in-hand with archive research. But there is also a very interesting illustration of archaeology in general: it is destructive. When the researchers open the lead coffin, they don't crack it open across the soldering. The study of that soldering might lead to interesting results, or could be used in an overarching research projects about types of soldering in the Middle Ages.

Instead they cut open the coffin as if it were a tin can, destroying the coffin in the process. Although it is unavoidable in order to learn something, archaeologists are very much aware that they only have one chance to study material from the past. It is therefore not abnormal that material remains "in the ground" or that no effort is made to disentangle a lump of material. Instead, researchers wait for better techniques, as in the case of the imaging of the Antikythera mechanism or of half-burnt books. That too is how archaeology works — waiting and being patient is also an option.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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