Still looking for Richard

February 14, 2013

Strangely, Laurie Taylor did not mention the research excellence framework impact arising from Poppleton University’s discovery of Boudicca (“Waking the dead”, The Poppletonian, 7 February): after all, the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History has surely hit the jackpot with the bones of Richard III. For a week, reports on the subject filled the news bulletins, the front, back and feature pages of broadsheets and tabloids in the UK, the US, Australasia and beyond, and projected the Battle of Bosworth into international consciousness. Poor Richard never had such impact when alive. The Richard III Society, rival cathedrals, Leicester City Council and the university have all laid claim to the accolades, the membership - and the tourism.

But wait. Isn’t impact outside academia supposed to be based on excellent research within it? Where is the excellent academic research here? Where are the refereed articles? Where is the final report for peer review and the evidence that the car park is actually within the old Franciscan friary and church (probably no problem, but still), and that the bones did belong to Richard III? Despite the headlines, the identification of Richard is not “beyond reasonable doubt”. A spot trench located at the whim of a non-academic is less than scientific and is more akin to automatic writing and Ouija boards. The emotional declaration that the modern reconstruction is not the face of a tyrant and murderer (certainly not the murderer of the princes!) is no improvement on the contemporary view that the real face was.

Does digging up past monarchs solve serious historical questions as successfully as it makes populist television? A lot of hard graft by Leicester’s archaeologists will be needed to demonstrate excellent research for impact for REF 2020: by then, perhaps, the REF archaeology panel can judge the depth and duration of the impact it is meant to assess.

Michael Hicks, Professor of medieval history, University of Winchester

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