There is no form of intrigue more delicious than archaeological intrigue, and this story is just riddled with it: royal exhumations, parking lots, anonymous sources, whiffs of conspiracy and official denials. Select your finest knife and heftiest fork; draw a damask napkin over your lap, and prepare to tuck in.
Back in September, you may recall, English archaeologists announced they had uncovered the remains of a church under a Leicester parking lot just a few miles away from the site of the Battle of Bosworth Field. Within that church they found the remains of a skeleton with a deformed spine and a "mortal battlefield wound;" a skeleton that may very well belong to Richard III, the last ruler of England to die in battle (poleaxed in battle, to get specific) and a man who was either the murderingest Plantagenet to ever poison a nephew or the unlucky victim of a Tudor smear campaign. At the time, a spokesperson for Leicester University said that further DNA testing was required before they could definitively identify the remains as Richard's.
And yet The Telegraph declared today that "information is being held back ahead of a major press conference next month, sources close to the project claim." Held back? Who would dare, and to what end? I want names. I want details.
A source with knowledge of the excavation told the Telegraph archaeologists will name the skeleton found beneath a Leicester car park in September as the Plantagenet king even if long-awaited DNA results on the bones prove inconclusive.
Additional evidence not revealed at a major press conference after the remains were found demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt that the body is the King's, even without genetic proof, the source said.
"Additional evidence not revealed" is perhaps the most evocative sentence ever written in the matter of archaeological disclosure. Not revealed! As if the archaeologists are too frightened, perhaps, to share the dread and terrible knowledge of what was uncovered in Richard's dark and secret tomb. Did his mouldered, doddering form advance forth from its unquiet grave and raise a withered and accusatory finger at the tomb-raiders who dared disturb him? Is there a curse? If so, is it more like the curse of Amenhotep ("May [tomb raiders] lose their earthly positions and honors, be incinerated in a furnace in execration rites, capsize and drown at sea, have no successors, receive no tomb or funerary offerings of their own, and may their bodies decay because they will stave without sustenance and their bones will perish") or of Timur ("Who ever opens my tomb, shall unleash an invader more terrible than I")?
Timur's, of course, is the better curse; vague curses are always more frightening than ones that get bogged down in specifics.
The University insists it has been open about the analysis of the skeleton from the start, but a number of people close to the study have become uncomfortable that new evidence is not being published.
A source told the Telegraph: "Unfortunately, an awful lot of stuff is being kept from the public. "I am told that circumstantial evidence of the find which is not going to be broadcast until this programme (on Channel Four) is brought out in January will confirm the body is Richard III's, even if the DNA does not."
Either the University is reluctant to make a premature announcement with profound historical implications without first gathering sufficient physical evidence...or they have something sinister to hide.
Another delightful detail is that the dig was primarily funded by donations raised by the Richard III Society, an organization headed by the current Duke of Gloucester. Its mission statement reads:
In the belief that many features of the traditional accounts of the character and career of Richard III are neither supported by sufficient evidence nor reasonably tenable, the Society aims to promote, in every possible way, research into the life and times of Richard III, and to secure a reassessment of the material relating to this period, and of the role of this monarch in English history.
The Richard III Society may, at first glance, appear to be an extraordinary phenomenon - a society dedicated to reclaiming the reputation of a king of England who died over 500 years ago and who reigned for little more than two years. Richard's infamy over the centuries has been due to the continuing popularity, and the belief in, the picture painted of Richard III by William Shakespeare in his play of that name. The validity of this representation of Richard has been queried over the centuries and has now been taken up by the Society.
Other British monarchs with unconfirmed resting places and unquiet spirits include Edward V of England (probably, but not certainly, buried somewhere within the Tower of London; it could be argued he doesn't count as a king at all) Constantine II of Scotland and James II (or VII, if you like), who was buried in France after the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary and whose body was disinterred, then lost, during the French Revolution. So there's still a chance to find some more, if you're looking.
[Image via AP]