Saturday, April 11, 2015

Update on Female Burials Found Near Richard III's Grave in Leicester Parking Lot


Archaeologists open coffin of elderly woman found near Richard III's grave in Leicester friary

By Ben Miller | 01 March 2015

A high-status elderly woman who was one of four female burials found near Richard III’s hastily-dug grave at Grey Friars friary has had her coffin opened, with archaeologists suggesting that her radiocarbon date could position her as a benefactor of the building.

A second excavation of the famous Leicester car park where the king’s body was found, carried out in August 2013, uncovered the coffin inside a much larger limestone sarcophagus. Academics believe she might have been buried shortly after the church was completed, in 1250, although they say she could have died as late as 1400.

“The stone sarcophagus was a tapered box carved from a single block of limestone,” says Matthew Morris, who led the dig.

“Inside, the wider end was curved, creating a broad head niche.

“Unfortunately, the stone lid did not properly fit the coffin allowing water to get inside, and its immense weight had badly cracked the sarcophagus, meaning it could not be lifted intact.

“Inside, the inner lead coffin was undamaged except for a hole at the foot end of the casket where the lead had decayed and collapsed inward exposing the skeleton’s feet.”

Carrying a crucifix, the coffin’s position, possibly close to the high altar, gave the woman a special significance to the holy Catholic order.

Local documentation from the time of the burials, around 700 years ago, have led to speculation among experts that the remains could belong to a woman called Emma, who was married to John of Holt.

Her death may have been noted by the Bishop of Lincoln, who granted 20 days off purgatory for anyone willing to say “a Pater and a Ave for the soul of Emma, wife of John of Holt, whose body is buried in the Franciscan church in Leicester”.

“We know little about her,” concedes Morris.

“A lack of fundamental information, such as her age at death, what she did for a living, what she looked like or where in the church she was buried, coupled with no known descendants who can provide a DNA sample, make it impossible to say for certain whether one of these skeletons is that of Emma or indeed anyone else. Sadly, they will forever remain anonymous.”

A lesser mystery lies in the gender ratios of the friary. Comparable monastic cemeteries tend to show far more male than female burials, although urban examples usually contain greater numbers of women.

“Although it might seem unusual that Richard III is the only male skeleton found inside the Grey Friars church - the other four skeletons all being female - it must be remembered that we have only excavated five of ten identified graves in the church’s chancel,” says Morris.

“There is potential for hundreds more burials elsewhere inside the church, the other friary buildings and outside in the cemetery.

“Statistically, the sample is too small to draw any conclusions to the significance of so many women at Grey Friars.

“If we carried out more excavations it is possible that we could find that these are the only four women buried in the church. Richard III would certainly not have been the only male buried here during the friary’s 300-year history and historic records list at least three other men buried in the church.

“What stands out more is the contrast between the care and attention taken with these burials – large, neatly dug graves with coffins – and the crudeness of Richard III’s grave.

“The more we examine it, the clearer it becomes how atypical Richard III’s burial really was.”

Richard’s health at the time of his death has been scrutinised since his body was discovered. His fellow burials, it seems, also suffered ailments – two graves inside the choir belonged to two females aged between 40 and 50, suffering a possible congenital hip dislocation and signs of a life of hard physical labour respectively.

“Analysis of Skeleton 4 shows that she had a life of hard physical work, frequently using her arms and legs to lift and support weight,” says Morris, discussing another woman who is thought to have died during her early or mid-20s.

"Her presence in this area might suggest that the friary’s main source of donations came from the town’s middle-classes, merchants and tradespeople who were probably of more modest means, and worked for a living.”

Analysis of the three intact sets of female remains from the priory showed a commonly-held diet rich in variety, protein and sea fish, typical of people with the wealth to buy expensive game, meat and fish.

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