Monarch Mining: Why Digging Up The Famous Dead Is Now a ‘Thing’

Monarch_mining_digventuresIs digging up historical celebrities anything other than the archaeological equivalent of sending out the paparazzi? DigVentures correspondent @RoseBroadley digs deeper.

Following the incongruous discovery of Richard III in a council car park, it seems that a trend for mining monarchs and other famous dead people is gathering pace.

But as well as igniting huge amounts of new interest, the discovery of Richard III has certainly prompted plenty of discussion. What is the appropriate way to treat long-dead leaders? Or indeed archaeological human bone generally? Why do we feel OK about putting some people on display and not others? How do we know what they would have wanted? Is there really much potential to gain new and useful knowledge? Or does digging up the famous dead serve an altogether different purpose? A quick tour of the dead slebs currently under investigation reveals a surprising variety of figures and motives.

Stephen I, grandson of William the Conquerer

Any day now, a search is due to begin for Stephen I. Stephen was King of England from 1135 to 1154, a period dominated by the civil war between him and the Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I. He was buried at Faversham Abbey, which was ripped down during the Dissolution. Now, some think he lies under the playing fields of Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Faversham, Kent. One could argue that these remains are not under threat and should be left where they lie, but the excavation leader argues that Stephen deserves the same honour as Richard has recently received. There has been no mention in the media reports of what plans are in place for research, commemoration or reinterment if the search is successful.

King Alfred (or is it Edward?)

The hip bone of either Alfred the Great or his son Edward have been identified in Winchester, after archaeologists first looked for Alfred’s remains at the site of Hyde Abbey (also destroyed during the Dissolution in 1539), and then eventually located them in a museum box of material excavated in the 1990s. His bones are thought to have been moved a number of times, firstly from the old Minster at Winchester to be with other members of his family, and then again to Hyde Abbey. His bones are also likely to have been disturbed along with many others by convicts building a prison in the 19th century. Such trials are perhaps unsurprising in over a millennium of turbulent history. Again, there appears to have been no mention of the future plans for this bone. Is there potential for further research, and should the bone be displayed or reburied?

Cnut, the Last Viking King

King Cnut (the ‘Last Viking King’, he of the legendary tale ‘King Canute and the waves’), who was King of England from 1016 to 1035 and also ruled Denmark, Norway and part of Sweden, was also originally buried at the Old Minster in Winchester. His bones were moved to the new Cathedral when it was built, along with those of other Anglo-Saxon royals, and placed in one of six large mortuary chests, which may have been correctly labelled originally. However, Roundhead soldiers tipped all the bones out and scattered them around the Cathedral during the Civil War of the 17th century – a deliberate act of disrespect – and they were not collected and replaced until after the Restoration of the Monarchy. Winchester Cathedral are keen to identify the remains and learn more about them, but using techniques involving minimal disturbance.

The Levellers (no, not the band)

At the opposite end of the social spectrum to royalty, there is a possibility that the current Crossrail excavation in London (a commercial rescue excavation project in advance of new railway construction) will find famous activists from The Levellers, one of England’s first mass democratic movements, particularly Robert Lockyer and John Lilburne. This one at least has a distinct rationale for excavation: any graves in the path of the new railway lines would otherwise be destroyed. Research into this group and educating people around the topic have clear relevance for modern politics and understanding of the history of democratic government in the UK. These men campaigned for freedom, democracy, and equality. They were killed when erstwhile colleagues in Cromwell’s army turned on them and were shot by firing squad. What’s more, the thousands of other burials at Bedlam likely to be uncovered will be an “unprecedented opportunity” to learn about lives in working class London over several centuries.


Probably the most famous search for a famous historical figure worldwide is the quest to find Cleopatra’s tomb. Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh to rule Egypt before it was enveloped by the Roman Empire, and she lived from 69-30 BC. There have been several separate projects relating to Cleopatra in recent years, some of which pre-date the search for Richard III in England. French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio lead a project in the 1990s that successfully discovered Cleopatra’s royal palace and the two ancient cities of Canopus and Heracleion. Dr Zahi Hawass, former Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, was working at the temple of Taposiris Magna, about 30 miles west of Alexandria until a few years ago. More recently, his collaborator Dominican archaeologist Kathleen Martínez’s search has been hampered by the lack of government infrastructure in Egypt following the Arab Spring. Nothing much had been heard on this in the last couple of years – until this week.

Although the date on this report is unfortunate – 1 April…

Genghis Khan

The search for Genghis Khan, creator of the Mongol empire between 1206 and 1227 AD, is a modern geo-political ding-dong that has received some news coverage this year. In addition to work by a Russian historian whose theory is that Khan’s tomb lies just on the Russian side of the modern border, a Chinese team are looking for him inside modern northern China, and most recently an archaeologist from the University of California is searching within modern Mongolia using non-invasive survey techniques – a digital project that keen volunteers can help with from home. There is some controversy over this however, as it seems neither the Mongolian population, nor Ghenghis Khan himself, want his grave to be found.

Federico García Lorca

The search for the famous playwright and poet Federico García Lorca in Spain is perhaps the most visceral of all, as it relates to the painful recent history of less than a century ago. Lorca was shot by a firing squad at the beginning of the 1936-39 Civil War, when Franco’s Fascist army launched a war on Spain’s democratically elected leftist government. The search for his grave is part of a wider movement to locate the mass graves and highlight the plight of the families of 114,000 others who were disappeared during the war and the dictatorship that followed and lasted until 1979, and the reluctance of the current right-wing government to facilitate any investigation.

William Shakespeare

Back to the UK now and in the last few days, a South African academic has renewed his request to investigate the bones of William Shakespeare. But work on Shakespeare’s bones is not looking likely, partly due to some big questions about whether or not any useful new knowledge would really be gained, and that his epitaph “Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones” suggests that he (like many people of his time) really, REALLY did not want to be exhumed:

The Princes in the Tower

Philippa Langley of the King Richard III Society has discussed her involvement with the search for Henry I at Reading and her plans to investigate the Princes in the Tower. It seems that access to the supposed remains of the Princes, buried in Westminster Abbey since the 17th century, is unlikely to be allowed. Repeated requests since the 1990s have been refused by the Church of England, with the backing of the Queen and ministers. Amongst the concerns raised was fear of setting a precedent for multiple royal disinterments. A slippery slope towards mass-monarch-mining?

Henry I

The search for Henry I, however, is part of the Hidden Abbey project in Reading , which has initial backing from English Heritage, and aims to reveal more about the remains of the Abbey preserved under the ground and ‘bring history alive’. It seems these are the broader aims of the work, with the possibility of finding another King as a bonus, which has parallels with the Richard III Project – it has been well-documented that the archaeologists involved there were focussed on studying and preserving the remains of Greyfriars, as few of the archaeologists really thought there was a chance of finding Richard III.

The circumstances of the individuals and their burial places vary hugely, as does the wider research potential in each case, so newspaper polls on whether England’s kings should be left where they are or not should definitely have an ‘It Depends’ button.

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Rose Broadley

Written by Rose Broadley

Rose is a part-time PhD student and freelance glass specialist, who loves black coffee and fresh air, and is currently juggling a final thesis draft, an admin job and two small children (not literally, however tempting!).

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