It seems there has never been a better time to head outside and start digging up your local car park. Since the bones of Richard III were exhumed in Leicester last summer, archaeology has become more exciting than even two decades of Channel 4's Time Team could have dreamed. We're used to seeing Tony Robinson enthusing over rain-logged trenches and tiny shards of pottery but the facility with which Richard emerged from the earth has spawned unprecedented excitement. After all, he was just lying there, waiting for us. All we had to do was scratch the surface and up he popped, grinning in all his spinally-curved beauty. And therein lies the problem: a sense of entitlement, even possession, over the last Plantagenet's remains might have led us to be a little over-confident. We're all archaeology junkies now, looking for instant gratification just under the topsoil. We're not going to find it.
Since February, a rash of excavations has begun to seek the bones of long dead historical figures. Days after the announcement of the Leicester findings, the search began for the remains of James I of Scotland, with historians believing his final resting place is under Hospital Street, Perth. Citing parallels with Richard, local enthusiasts are in the process of raising funds to discover their own lost king. In March, the search began for the remains of Queen Boudicca, who rebelled against the Romans in the first century AD. The old legend that she lies beneath under platforms eight, nine and ten at London's King's Cross Station, has now given way to the theory that she will be found under a McDonald's Restaurant in Birmingham. Big Mac and battleaxe, anyone?
Now Italian architects are attempting to locate a tomb thought to contain the remains of the woman who inspired the Mona Lisa. Searching for Lisa Gherardini under a Florentine convent, they hope to recover enough shards of her skull to reconstruct her face and compare it with Da Vinci's most enigmatic work. Another recently reconstructed face is that of Henri IV, King of France, who was murdered in 1610. The mummified head was recently unearthed by an antiques dealer and reconstructed by an expert from Barcelona University using 3D imaging. More exciting finds are being anticipated. If it can happen in Leicester, it can happen here, to us, in our back garden, can't it?
There have already been calls for the reopening of other tombs in London's Westminster Abbey, including that of Anne Neville, wife of Richard III and the urn reputed to contain the bones of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, who disappeared in 1483. Shakespeare's legend of the "wicked murdering" king perpetuates the ideas that he poisoned his ailing queen and ordered the two young boys to be smothered in their sleep. Yet opening their tombs, for which royal permission is currently being withheld, would not prove Richard's guilt or innocence either way. Why do it then?
What these cases have in common is a sense of unresolved mystery. They involve murders, violent death and secrecy. Whilst the remains of these individuals have lain undisturbed for centuries, the sudden interest in their exhumation appears to be prompted by little more than a desire to resolve the unknown, to provide answers to controversial historical questions. In some cases, we might finally be able to find decisive proof when it comes to such matters as Richard III's appearance. But his case is not typical. Richard's discovery, on the first day of excavation, in the predicted location, was an exceptional piece of good luck. Had the diggers gone in a couple of inches further away, he could still be lying under the tarmac.
The hope that we might be able to lift the lid on a Pandora's box of historical enigmas is unrealistic. Should we then refrain from trying? Just because we can poke about among the bones of the dead, does it mean that we should? We have to relinquish any romantic sense of ownership over figures from the past or any misguided notion that we are giving them the resolution or reburial that they "deserve". This new-found enthusiasm may even compromise the survival of some important remains. In March this year, a skeleton reputed to be that of Alfred the Great was removed from an unmarked grave in Winchester, to protect them against the "seekers of lost kings." This suggests images reminiscent of eighteenth century grave robbers, or the plundering of grave goods in the pyramids. Before we jump on the bones bandwagon, let us be sure of our motives. And, above all, let's leave the digging to the professionals.
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