Richard III dig: Eyes of world on Leicester as Greyfriars skeleton find revealed
Leicester became the focus of worldwide media attention yesterday after evidence linking human remains with the final resting place of King Richard III was unveiled.
Journalists and TV crews scrambled for a spot at the 14th century Guildhall as they awaited news of the discovery.
Live cameras rolled and reporters listened intently as five key clues which identified an exhumed skeleton as a possible match for the last Plantaganet were revealed.
Archaeologists began the excavation on August 25 and had uncovered the bones after just one day of digging – although they remained tight-lipped on the discovery until yesterday.
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The assembled media heard details of the skeleton's spinal abnormalities, for which Richard III was famously known.
A second skeleton, that of a mystery woman, was also found.
Dr John Ashdown-Hill, the novelist and historian who tracked down Richard III's last descendent and was instrumental in the initiation of the project, said: "This is possibly the most exciting find of recent times, it's very interesting – assuming that it's him.
"I don't think we've ever had a royal body found in this way in England before. This is really big news."
City mayor Sir Peter Soulsby struggled to contain his excitement at the press conference.
Sir Peter, who was briefed about the find last Thursday, has already started planning for tourists attracted by the find.
He said: "It's him, of course it's him. The university has a reputation to uphold, so they can't say the same without factual proof, but everything points to the fact that we have found Richard III."
Reports quickly spread across the globe yesterday.
American broadcaster NBC reported "Battle-scarred skeleton may belong to King Richard III", while the Montreal Gazette in Canada chronicled "Stunning find in the search for grave of King Richard III".
Speaking at the press conference, Richard Taylor, director of corporate affairs at the university, said: "Clearly we are all very excited by these latest discoveries. We have said finding Richard was a long shot.
"However, it is a testament to the skill of the archaeological team led by Richard Buckley that such extensive progress has been made.
"We have all been witness to a powerful and historic story unfolding before our eyes.
"It is proper that the university now subjects the finds to rigorous analysis so that the strong circumstantial evidence that has presented itself can be properly understood."
The other clues relating to the overthrown monarch included a barbed arrowhead embedded in the skeleton's back, suggesting he died in battle – another historically documented fact.
The skull also displayed injuries which archaeologists believe were caused by a bladed implement.
Philippa Langley, from the Richard III Society, said: "In the Ballad of Bosworth Field, which was only written a few years after Richard died, it mentions he died after being hit on the head with a poleaxe."
Professor Lin Foxhall, head of the school of archaeology and ancient history at the university, said: "What's interesting about the barbed arrowhead is that it's consistent with a battle injury. People in the Middle Ages got their heads bashed in all the time, but the arrowhead indicates that this person was killed in battle.
"The problem is that it's very complicated to preserve remains in an urban site.
"You're dealing with areas which have been reused time after time by whoever settles there.
"If brickwork or foundations are still strong people will build on top of them.
"It's a miracle we found anything, to be honest."
Archaeologists, led by Mr Buckley, who is co-director of archaeology at the university, began stripping back the soil and carving out two trenches at the car park on August 25 – the anniversary of Richard's burial. Ground-probing radar and maps of the area dating back to 1741 had revealed historical ruins at one end of the site, which the team believed was part of a Franciscan Friary.
However, despite evidence of the medieval church where Richard was reportedly buried, the team did not hold out much hope of finding his body.
Mr Buckley said: "I've got a very large hat to eat. I think it goes without say that I'm very excited and rather stunned that everything has gone so smoothly.
"As a Leicester boy I hope the remains stay in Leicester.
"Richard III was buried in the parish in good faith and there's no reason why he should be moved."
It transpired yesterday that the team uncovered their first leg bone after just one day.
It was site manager Mathew Morris who dramatically unearthed the first signs of a skeleton.
"I found a leg bone, but the problem was that a lot of human remains get churned around when they've been in the ground for a long time, so we had to be careful not to damage any other parts of the skeleton while we were excavating," he said yesterday.
"Even when we'd found it, we hadn't identified the church or anything else which might point to the fact it was Richard III, so although it was exciting I didn't want to let myself get carried away."
The university had to apply for licence from the Ministry of Justice to remove the bones.
They are now being housed in an undisclosed location, where Dr Turi King, from the university's Department of Genetics, is testing the DNA against that of Michael Ibsen – Richard's last living relative.
If the DNA matches, then the university will finally be able to confirm they have discovered the remains of the last Plantagenet king of England.
However, the process could take up to 12 weeks.
Helen Foxhall Forbes, lecturer in medieval history at the university, is part of the dig team.
She said: "This is hugely exciting – you don't normally get to excavate a monarch!
"I don't think anyone was sure we would find him, in fact we were quite sceptical ourselves.
"There was a lot of misinformation passed about King Richard after he died. Even in 1491, just four years after he was buried, there were reports of his body being thrown in the river.
"The body seems to have been buried with some haste and was in a weird position.
"He was also dressed in a shroud, which is consistent with the reports he was stripped bare and paraded before being buried."
Sir Peter spoke about retaining the trenches as a possible site of historical significance, and backed calls to re-bury the remains at Leicester Cathedral.
He said: "It's been here in the parish of St Martin's for the past 500 years and it's only right and respectful that it stays in the parish.
"This is a major chapter in the history of Leicester."