On social media, archaeologists roll their eyes at Richard III skeleton discovery

February 5, 2013
The skeleton of King Richard III, who ruled for 26 months in the mid-15th century, was recently discovered. (REUTERS/University of Leicester/Handout)
The skeleton of King Richard III, who ruled for 26 months in the mid-15th century, was recently discovered. (REUTERS/University of Leicester/Handout)

When a U.K. university announced on Monday that a skeleton it had earlier retrieved from an urban parking lot does indeed belong to the “hunchback” king, Richard III of England, the news sparked a public frenzy unusual for archaeological digs, with coverage everywhere from The New Yorker to The Onion.

Nearly 530 years after his death, “Richard III” even trended on Twitter.

But while most of the mainstream reaction lauded the discovery -- “it ranks as one of the most dramatic archaeological discoveries of modern times,” gushes a Telegraph editorial -- the reaction from some archaeologists has been decidedly less enthused.

"Gt fun & a mystery solved that we've found Richard 3,” tweeted Mary Beard, the prominent classical scholar and one of the earliest instigators of the debate. “But does it have any HISTORICAL significance? (Uni of Leics overpromoting itself?))"

The criticism from archaeologists basically falls in three camps. First, they point out, the research announced at the University of Leicester’s press conference hasn’t been reviewed or published yet, though the university says it will be soon.

Then there’s the press conference itself -- a “jamboree” of “hype” at the University of Leicester, according to Guardian culture writer Charlotte Higgins and Beard, respectively. The announcement, carefully orchestrated by the university and made on live TV, is unusual in academic circles, writes University of Sheffield historian Catherine Fletcher. And as archaeologist Mark Horton notes in the New Scientist, some of the dig’s funding even came from a British television station, which aired a program solely dedicated to its findings.

And finally, veering into classic ivory-hall territory, academics like University of Bristol classicist Neville Morley have argued that the skeleton doesn’t contribute much to history at all -- the skeletons of ordinary people or artifacts, they say, would actually prove much more telling than the old bones of some maligned monarch, though the monarch may draw more cameras.

Attached to that concern is the specter of funding -- which often goes to the most publicized, Indiana Jones-like projects, several academics write.

“Apparently we will discover later today whether a skeleton excavated in a Leicester car park is that of Richard III. Whoop-de-doo,” Morley began in an eviscerating blog post on Monday. “Of course it must be so much better to be the Man Who Found Richard III’s Lunchbox than to be the Man Who Discovered Interesting Things About Late Medieval Spinal Injuries: heroic, romantic and interesting, rather than actually useful in the cause of developing knowledge and understanding.”

Not all academics agree, of course.

"Good to see the #RichardIII dig showing that #archaeology is still a really exciting subject," tweeted Duncan Berryman, a Ph.D. student in medieval archaeology.

Tracy Borman, a historian who has written widely on medieval history, called the discovery “immensely exciting” in an interview with the BBC’s History Magazine.

“Somehow, the more legendary (or notorious) a figure becomes, the less human they seem,” she said. “The unearthing of some bones beneath a car park in Leicester – hardly a fitting resting place for a king, no matter how vilified – could change all of that."

Since Monday, Beard has battled her Twitter detractors in nearly 100 tweets, finally publishing a blog post to explain her position. On the blog of the University of Bristol’s Classics department, Morley has engaged in a long back-and-forth with critics, many of whom accuse him of mere professional jealousy.

"I’d have expected more from a fellow university professor. Should be ashamed of himself," one commenter complains.

It would appear that, half a millennium after he died in battle, Richard III’s fights aren’t over -- they’ve just moved into the comments sections of academic blogs.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Max Fisher · February 5, 2013