University of Leicester archaeologists have bid a fond farewell to the Grey Friars site – almost a year since beginning their archaeological search for Richard III. The originator of the Search project was Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society.
The team from the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History began digging at the site of Leicester City Council car park in August last year.
They made headlines around the world when they uncovered the remains of the last Plantagenet king of England.
The archaeologists have now closed the gates of the site for the final time – after a second month-long dig throughout July, which revealed yet more about the medieval friary.
Site director Mathew Morris, of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), said: “It was sad to be locking the gate for the last time. Our four weeks on site at Grey Friars are officially over.
“At the end of the final day, I said goodbye to the last visitors of the day and locked the gate to the viewing platform for the final time.
“The last archaeological feature was dug and recorded, we said goodbye to our two fantastic interns Claire and Emma, all our equipment and all the newly discovered artefacts were taken up to the University.
“Afterwards, we celebrated the conclusion of another successful project in proper archaeological style – we went to the pub for a well-deserved pint!”
“Aside from finding Richard III, uncovering the stone coffin has been the most memorable thing from the dig. The nicest part was getting to work with the whole team – and it was really good to have them all back for the second excavation.”
Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist on the Search for Richard III, said: “In a way, this is the end of the journey for the Grey Friars site.
“It has been a special site to work on. I have always known about Grey Friars and its connection with Richard III, but I never thought for a minute I would get the chance to investigate it. Also, it’s helping us to tell the story of medieval Leicester.
“For me, the most memorable parts have been getting the best weather of the year, being amazed that the two initial trenches identified key friary buildings, thereby leading us to the church and above all, the ‘buzz’ from all the interest from the public and from the press.”
The dig attracted visitors from all over the world. The archaeologists estimate around 200 people visited the public viewing platform each day – with between 4,000 and 6,000 visitors over the whole month.
Richard said: “Without exception, everyone seemed to be as excited as we were. When we had the first open day and I saw the queue of people going around the block, I felt so proud of our achievement and thrilled that at last, Leicester’s archaeology was receiving the attention it deserved.”
For the archaeologists, the end of the second dig marks a year of work on Richard III and his burial place.
“It has been a very exciting year,” said Richard. “This time last year, when we were preparing to dig at Grey Friars for the first time, I thought we would be lucky to find a couple of robber trenches – it didn’t seem possible we would actually find Richard III.”
The archaeologists uncovered the remains of an individual with severe battle wounds and a curved spine at Grey Friars in September.
Richard Buckley worked with a team of experts from a wide range of disciplines – including genetics, osteoarchaeology, forensic pathology and genealogy – to determine the skeleton’s identity.
The results revealed that – beyond reasonable doubt – the remains were those of the medieval monarch, and the University announced its discovery to a global audience in February.
More than 150 reporters, TV crews and radio vans attended the press conference, and the news hit headlines around the world.
The discovery sparked global interest, and even inspired a host of artists and cartoonists to produce work around the medieval king’s death and rediscovery.
The project was consistently praised as being “public archaeology at its best” – connecting people and a nation with their lost heritage by locating the lost remains of one of England’s most controversial kings.
Since February, the team has published academic papers on the archaeology of the site, given guest lectures and talks on the discovery all around the world, and are compiling a book on the history of the Grey Friars site.
They returned to Grey Friars at the beginning of July for a month-long excavation.
During this time, the team excavated a stone coffin containing a second, lead coffin, which has been taken to the University for analysis before it can be opened. It is likely to hold an important person – possibly a medieval knight or leading Franciscan.
Two other skeletons were also found underneath the church’s choir. These will now be examined by University of Leicester osteoarchaeologist Dr Jo Appleby.
The second dig gave a much clearer picture of the church’s layout and how Richard III’s grave fits inside the church choir.
The archaeologists also found evidence of a new building to the south of the church with large buttressed walls – which could possibly be the remains of an earlier church or chapel, or another building connected with the friary.
Leading UK construction and infrastructure company Morgan Sindall is currently on the Grey Friars site constructing a King Richard III Visitor Centre to showcase some of the finds from the site. Morgan Sindall worked with the archaeological team to enable access to the site whilst building work continues.
Header Image : Closing the dig, the archaeological work finishes at the Greyfriars site. : University of Leicester