On digging up bones

To my great shame, I’ve never been on an archaeological dig, which is a bit embarrassing if you spend most of your day hanging around in UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. So I don’t know whether archaeologists approach cemetery excavation in a spirit of reverence or a spirit of medical-student-making-cadaver-fart. But as far as my understanding goes, archaeologists generally only dig up bones in two circumstances: 1) rescue archaeology (ie the site in question is about to have an office block built on it) and 2) where a specific and valid research question will be answered.

So I’m not that upset to learn that the Church of England has repeatedly refused to open the putative burial urn of the Princes in the Tower in Westminster Abbey “on the grounds that it could set a precedent for testing historical theories that would lead to multiple royal disinterments.” I’m not usually a fan of slippery slope arguments – particularly not from the Church – but I think this one has something. Funerary archaeology in the media has always been a teensy bit prurient (“Is it – gulp – HUMAN SACRIFICE?”) so I can understand why the Church doesn’t want to offer up remains in its care on a platter for the purposes, basically, of tingling spines. It’s not like enough people haven’t been buried over the millennia to satisfy our apparent need to hear about grisly ends.

Because that’s really all it would amount to. As the Church pointed out, a positive identification of the bones as those of the Princes won’t prove anything by itself about the murder. If, on the other hand, the remains prove not to be related to the skeleton unearthed at Leicester, that could open up all kinds of cans of historical worms, but it will also present the Abbey with the problem of what to do with the remains – put them back in the wrongly named urn? No clear answers about the mystery of the Princes’ deaths will result, either way. Of course, it might be that analyses of the bones would tell us something utterly intriguing (they are the Princes, but they died of natural causes? Imagine that!) But where would such “let’s see if…” enquiries end? “Let’s see if…” enquiries are what you do at your desk, not in the field or in the lab. The human stakes are too serious. And it’s too expensive.

Anyway, I’m nigglingly interested in the two children whose remains were found when workmen accidentally broke into the tomb of Edward IV and his queen in the eighteenth century. They were assumed at the time to be the bones of two other children of the couple who were known to have died young of natural causes. But twenty years later, coffins apparently with the names of those children on them were discovered elsewhere. So who are the children in Edward IV’s tomb? See how ghoulish this stuff gets?

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