Apparently we will discover later today whether a skeleton excavated in a Leicester car park is that of Richard III. Whoop-de-doo. Apparently it has a curved spine and battle injuries (and obviously no one else in the middle ages ever suffered such things), but the crucial piece of the jigsaw will be the DNA test. Too much to hope that the margin of error on such things will be properly explained; I’m on the edge of my seat waiting to see whether it’s one in a million or one in seventeen billion that it isn’t the man himself. Of course, even if there isn’t a plausible match (the level of hysteria this morning suggests that they must feel pretty confident), this has still been wonderful publicity for the Leicester Archaeology department, and maybe even for archaeology in general. Who can complain about that?
Well, I’m going to. Why is it that a skeleton is interesting only if it’s that of a famous person? Indeed, why is it that every site must be Camelot, or Caesar’s palace, or the Great Edifice of Wherever, and every object must be Arthur’s chair or Cleopatra’s sewing-kit or Pericles’ wine cup? Of course it’s what the media (and, possibly, the public) want, something that links to the sort of history they’ve been taught (not least through other television programmes), organised around great men and women, who are then brought to life by the objects that are attributed to them – but archaeologists are more than happy to give it to them, which just reinforces the whole thing. It’s only a short step from seeing archaeology as a hunt for the personal effects of famous people (and objects are interesting only if some sort of link to a famous person can be invented) to seeing it as an Indiana Jones-style hunt for mystical treasures. Of course it must be so much better to be the Man Who Found Richard III’s Lunchbox than to be the Man Who Discovered Interesting Things About Late Medieval Spinal Injuries: heroic, romantic and interesting, rather than actually useful in the cause of developing knowledge and understanding.
Yes, I know it’s all about money; the publicity fluff is a means of getting funding for more serious research, and can probably all be counted under ‘Impact’ in order to justify spending public funds – the public would be indifferent bordering on hostile to the idea that researching late medieval health is a worthwhile activity, but happy to pay for the disinterment of someone they’ve heard of. But at what point does the publicity game take over, and the need for a gimmick to ‘justify’ the project start becoming the real driver of the project? Do archaeologists – whom I recall, when I was a graduate student, being extremely sniffy about conventional historical accounts – not occasionally get a little tired of being the handmaidens of historical narratives and conceptions of the past that are far more conventional, if not actively pernicious, than anything their historical colleagues actually produce?
What possible difference is the discovery and identification of this skeleton going to make to anything? Confirmation that Richard III died in the vicinity of the supposed site of Bosworth Field and had a hunchback? Okay, risk of circular reasoning, as it’s the location and the spinal deformation that play a role in the supposed identification, but in any case so what? Hardly changes our view of Richard or his reign, let alone anything else. This really is nothing more than a combination of the fetishisation of the material and good old-fashioned snobbery, the notion that somehow a past constructed from texts isn’t real enough and a past constructed on material evidence relating to ordinary people isn’t interesting enough, but a past involving the skeleton of a famous person wins on both counts. Bah, and humbug.