Smithsonian Channel To Air Special King Richard III Discovery

The Smithsonian Channel will soon air a documentary about the remarkable discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III in a parking lot in Leicester, England.

“The King’s Skeleton: Richard III Revealed” premieres Sunday, April 21 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. The two-hour show was produced by the only team allowed access to the scientists, the excavation and the lab tests used to determine the skeleton’s identity. The documentary has already aired in the UK and attracted five million viewers. This will be the first American showing.

Gadling received an advance copy of the show. For some background, read our article about Richard III and the discovery. Also check out these amazing photographs from the dig. Our review follows and contains some spoilers. Of course, everyone already knows how the story ends!

%Gallery-185896%The documentary follows the quest of Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society to find the king’s remains, said to have been buried the now-disappeared Greyfriars church in Leicester after he was killed by Henry Tudor’s forces at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Research with old maps revealed it to be under a municipal parking lot. Langley raised money from society members and spent years convincing the local council to allow an excavation.

Langley tells of how when walking through the parking lot she felt certain that she had found the spot where Richard lay. Remarkably, the letter “R” was painted on the very same spot. The documentary fails to mention that this R was a symbol for Reserved Parking. Once the excavation begins and a skeleton is found, there’s a sudden downpour. This normal English weather is given a spooky significance by the producers.

Once the paranormal silliness is dispensed with, we get to the real meat: the excavation and meticulous examination of the body. One interesting sequence is of an art historian talking about how later painters commissioned by the new Tudor dynasty made Richard look deformed, which then was considered a sign of moral corruption. This was the origin of the Shakespearean Richard with the hunchback and withered arm.

Then comes an interesting sequence where members of the Richard III society get their say. They’re dedicated to rehabilitating the king’s image, denying he killed his predecessor’s young heirs and denying he had a hunchback. Their main objection to his having a deformity is that he couldn’t have worn armor. Anyone with a passing knowledge of medieval warfare knows that knights and royalty didn’t go to Ye Olde Shopping Mall to buy armor off the rack; it was made to their specific measurements. Try wearing metal plates on your body that aren’t shaped to your dimensions and see how well you can move! This obvious rebuttal wasn’t mentioned in the show, although surely the producers were told this by their scientific advisers. It seems narrative tension is more important than historical clarity.

While I found some segments of the show distracting, historians and archaeologists get plenty of airtime and we learn a bit about how bones are analyzed and how a DNA match with one of Richard’s descendants proved it was him. There’s also some gruesome detail about all the wounds on Richard’s body, including demonstrations of some of the weapons probably used. The army of Henry Tudor repeatedly hacked at Richard and appears to have humiliated his corpse by stabbing him in the rear end. It was a grim end to a short reign.

My wife, a scientist with no special interest in medieval history and perhaps more representative of the target audience than a former archaeologist like me, commented that the documentary could use some more historical background to place Richard III and the Battle of Bosworth into context. This could have been easily done by shaving off some of the more frivolous segments.

Despite these reservations, we both thoroughly enjoyed the show for its stunning imagery, clear narration and scientific detail. We recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the archaeological discovery of the year.

5 Overlooked Castles Close To London

castles, England
England is famous for its castles. Giant fortresses such as Bamburgh Castle and Lincoln Castle attract thousands of visitors a year, but people tend to overlook the many smaller, lesser-known castles close to London. These are often as interesting as their more famous cousins and make for enjoyable day trips from London. Here are five of the best.

Hadleigh Castle
Near the town of Hadleigh in Essex stands the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, once a magnificent royal residence. It was started in 1215 and massively expanded by King Edward III (ruled 1327-1377) to be a fortified residence away from the stink and political infighting of London. Sitting atop a high ridge overlooking the Essex marshes, the Thames estuary and the sea, it held an important strategic position. Edward was obviously thinking of it as more than just a relaxing getaway.

The castle has suffered over the years, as you can see in this photo courtesy Ian Dalgliesh. Erosion crumbled the walls, and in 1551 it was purchased by Lord Richard Rich (real name!) who promptly sold off much of the stone. One tower stands to its full height and portions of the walls also remain, so you can get a good idea of what it looked like when it defended southeast England from French invasion during the Hundred Years War.

Hadleigh Castle is in open parkland and is free to the public during daylight hours.

%Gallery-185653%Hedingham Castle
Another Essex castle is Hedingham Castle, one of the best-preserved early Norman fortifications in the country. It’s a motte-and-bailey type, consisting of an artificial mound (motte) with a keep and wall on top, and a lower area enclosed by a wall (bailey). Both parts are surrounded by a ditch. Usually they were built of wood first and later replaced with stone when the local ruler got the time and money. These castles could be built quickly and cheaply and the Normans put them all over England after they conquered the kingdom in 1066.

At Hedingham you can still see the 12th-century keep, which rises 95 feet to give a commanding view of the countryside. It played a key part in the Barons’ War of 1215-1217, when several barons rebelled against the despotic King John. They eventually lost but remarkably this castle survived its siege. The four spacious interior floors are filled with medieval bric-a-brac and the banqueting hall is available for weddings.

Since the castle is still a private residence, it’s open only on selected days.

Longthorpe Tower
In the outskirts of the city of Peterborough in Cambridgeshire stands Longthorpe Tower, an imposing 14th-century tower that is all that remains of a fortified manor house. The outside is impressive enough, but the real treasure is inside, where the walls are covered with magnificent medieval wall paintings from about 1330. They are in such good condition because they were whitewashed over during the Reformation and weren’t discovered again until the 1940s. The paintings show a variety of religious and secular subjects such as the Wheel of Life and scenes from the Nativity and acts of King David.

Longthorpe Tower is only open on weekends. While in Peterborough, also check out the medieval Peterborough Cathedral.

Farnham Castle
An hour’s drive the southwest of London is Farnham, Surrey, where stands one of the most interesting medieval buildings in the region. It started out as a Norman castle built in 1138 by the grandson of William the Conqueror. Destroyed during a civil war in 1155, it was soon rebuilt and eventually became the traditional home of the Bishops of Winchester, including Cardinal Henry Beaufort, who presided over the trial of Joan of Arc and ordered her burned at the stake. In memory of that event, a local church in Farnham is dedicated to Joan.

During the English Civil War, the castle was “slighted” (partially destroyed to render it useless for defense) and it was no longer used for military purposes. The large circular keep still survives in a reduced state. The ornately decorated Bishop’s Palace is in better condition and is now a conference center.

Farnham Castle is privately owned but the keep and Bishop’s Palace are open to the public.

Berkhamsted Castle
An easy walk from Berkhamsted train station in Hertfordshire stands Berkhamsted Castle, a Norman motte-and-bailey castle now fallen into picturesque ruin. While not as impressive as the well-preserved keep of Hedingham Castle, this place has the advantage of being free and open all day for seven months of the year.

Built by William the Conqueror’s half-brother in 1066, it became an important fortification and, like Hedingham Castle, was besieged during the Barons’ War. It was taken by rebel forces with the help of Prince Louis of France after they stormed it with a variety of siege engines, including what’s believed to be the first use of the trebuchet. After the war it was claimed by the Crown and used as a royal fortress until it was allowed to fall into ruin in the late 15th century. By this time castles were becoming outmoded thanks to the development of artillery.

[Photo by Ian Dalgliesh]

Crypts Discovered Under Coventry Cathedral

Coventry Cathedral
Workers at Coventry Cathedral in England have discovered several well-preserved crypts underneath the ruins, the Daily Mail reports.

A maintenance team has been working to repair a crack in the ruins of the 14th century St. Michael’s church, which became a cathedral in 1918 and was mostly destroyed by the Luftwaffe in World War II. When the workers investigated the floor of the cathedral, they discovered nine hidden crypts dating back to the 1350s. They also discovered some bones, thought to be of Coventry’s nobility. Coventry was a wealthy and important city in medieval England and the crypts reflect that in their fine workmanship.

Despite being in ruins, the cathedral is still holy ground as well as a historic monument. The World Monuments Fund has put it on its Watch List to highlight its deteriorating condition. The current cathedral is located right next to it. Cathedral officials announced that they hope to open the crypts to the public to augment what is already the most popular tourist site in Coventry.

The BBC has released a short video of the crypts.

[Photo courtesy Andrew Walker]

The ‘Christopher Columbus Of China’ May Have Visited Kenya, A New Find Reveals

Kenya
An explorer from medieval China may have visited an island off the coast of Kenya, archaeologists say.

A joint expedition by The Field Museum and the University of Illinois at Chicago unearthed a 15th-century Chinese coin on the Kenyan island of Manda, according to a Field Museum press release. Starting around 200 A.D., Manda was a trading hub and home to an advanced civilization.

The coin, shown here, is an alloy of copper and silver and was issued by the Ming Emperor Yongle, who reigned from 1403-1425 A.D. The coin bears the emperor’s name.

Emperor Yongle sent Admiral Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, on an epic mission of exploration to find new trading partners. He traveled around the coasts of south and southeast Asia, east Africa as far north as Somalia, and the Arabian Peninsula.

“Zheng He was, in many ways, the Christopher Columbus of China,” said Dr. Kusimba, curator of African Anthropology at The Field Museum. “This finding is significant. We know Africa has always been connected to the rest of the world, but this coin opens a discussion about the relationship between China and Indian Ocean nations.”

Sadly, later Chinese rulers took a more insular policy and banned foreign expeditions. If they had continued Yongle’s work, the great Age of Exploration may have been more Chinese than European. Manda was mysteriously abandoned around 1430, shortly after Emperor Yongle’s death.

Chinese contact with east Africa has become a hot topic of research in recent years. Back in 2010, we reported that a DNA study found genetic links between China and Africa.

While the focus has been on Kenya, researchers might want to take a look at the city of Harar in Ethiopia, which has been a trading center for centuries. Some Hararis have vaguely Chinese features, and Harari coins have been found in China. When I was doing research there some Hararis told me that the city used to trade with China many centuries ago.

In the nearby early medieval settlement of Harla, which may have been the predecessor to Harar, farmers have uncovered two Chinese coins dated to 1040 and 1080 A.D.

[Photo courtesy John Weinstein/The Field Museum]

London Crossrail Project Unearths Black Death Burial Pit

black death“Bring out your dead!”

If you lived in London in 1348-50, you’d hear that call a lot. All of Europe was swept with the Black Death, a virulent plague that killed an estimated one-third of the population. London, like other congested urban areas, got hit hard.

Now archaeologists working in London have uncovered a mass grave of Black Death victims, a Crossrail press release reports. Digging ahead of the planned London Crossrail transportation project, the team discovered a mass grave of 13 bodies at Charterhouse Square, an area known as a burial ground during the plague. Pottery from the mid-14th century found at the site helps confirm the identification.

The bodies were laid out neatly in rows, hinting that the burial ground was from the early stages of the Black Death. When the plague was going full force, bodies were simply dumped into giant pits.

Now archaeologists are examining the bones to learn more about how the people lived, including diet, physical health and work-related wear and tear on the body. They also hope to find surviving DNA from the plague to give scientists a better idea of how it developed. Researchers stress that the plague bacteria cannot live for long in the soil and the excavation poses no health risk.

This is only the latest in a series of finds by the Crossrail workers. Earlier we reported on their discovery of a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age trackway. The Crossrail project is a high-speed train system that will link 37 stations along 73 miles of track through London. It’s due to open in 2018.

Sadly, the 14th century plague was only the first wave of a persistent contagion. The Black Death returned to London several times, the worst being in 1665-6, when it killed 100,000 Londoners.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]