Richard III: Finding Royal remains was a million to one chance
A small team of university archaeologists unearthed a number of graves and human remains at the Greyfriars site in their hunt for Richard III. Four graves were too old to be of interest and were left as they were found.
The disarticulated remains of a female – possibly the friary's benefactor, a 13th century woman named Ellen Luenor – was also among the finds.
Then there was a skeleton which had a severe curvature of the spine, battle trauma to the skull and was found in the choir of the church – the burial place of King Richard III.
What were the odds? According to dig site manager Mathew Morris: "Astronomical."
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The Grey Friars church is a huge plot which extends 13,000sq ft beneath buildings, walls, electrical cables, underground phone lines and gas pipes.
A series of tests with ground-probing radar indicated the spots where Mathew and the team could not dig, which left just 17 per cent of the friary available to excavate.
From that, the archaeological team chose one per cent of the entire church grounds to excavate, due to limitations with their finances and time.
"It felt like a one in a million chance," said Mathew. "It just seemed so improbable we would find anything.
"By the time we picked our spot and started digging, we had narrowed the size of the entire friary to a spot which accounted for just 0.06 per cent of the total grounds."
Perhaps Mathew should take up gambling because on the first morning, on the first day, in the initial stages of digging trench one, he came across some human remains – a left leg.
"I spotted a bone on the first morning of the dig – we would have found it in the first hour of excavating if it wasn't for the camera crew – but we didn't realise the importance of what we had found at first.
"We didn't know whether it was male and we hadn't seen the trauma or the spine yet. Our priority was to find the church first and determine the layout, so we found the body too early – there was no context as to where in the church the remains had been buried."
The team used a fairly specific location proposed by Oadby historian David Baldwin, who, almost 30 years ago, predicted the site would be found "at the northern end of St Martins".
Mathew and team also used a map drawn in 1741 by Thomas Roberts, which is believed to be the first accurate plan of Leicester.
After probing the ground with radar and marking out the trenches, Mathew and colleague Dr Jo Appleby – a lecturer in human bio-archaeology at the University of Leicester – began digging.
Although Mathew had the honour of finding the skeleton, it was up to Dr Appleby to remove it from the earth.
However, there was one minor mishap with a mattock which left a small hole in the buried skeleton's skull.
Because of the unceremonious way the body had been dumped in the grave, the head had shifted to the right and, unfortunately, took a knock from Dr Appleby's blade.
"It was very compacted sediment so I needed the mattock," she said.
"I would never have used it if I'd known I was centimetres from a skull."
But at this point the team still had no idea as to the significance of their find.
"After the strange positioning of the skull, I decided it was important to work from what we knew – the legs – even though we hadn't uncovered the full length of the grave," said Dr Appleby, who excavated the legs and arms next.
"After the skull, I decided to work from the bottom up.
"It was only when I got to the vertebrae that I started to relax and I began to think 'it's probably not him'.
"The first four vertebrae I uncovered were buried where I expected and I uncovered them as normal.
"But then I went to dig for the fifth and it wasn't there. It was off to one side.
"I uncovered more vertebrae which carried on to the side and I began to think 'I think we've found him'."
As Dr Appleby passed out the pieces of King Richard's remains, Mathew carefully placed them into protective boxes, which would then be taken to the university.
A few more clues, such as battle wounds, began to get the team excited.
But it was only August and it would be a long time before the identity of their skeleton was confirmed.