Q&A with Richard Buckley

We speak to the man who led the discovery of Richard III’s final resting place

June 11, 2015
Richard Buckley, University of Leicester Archaeological Services

Richard Buckley is co-director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services, which he formed in 1995 with Patrick Clay. After graduating from Durham University in 1979, he was a field officer with the Leicestershire Archaeological Unit from 1980 to 1995. Mr Buckley was the project manager and lead archaeologist on the Greyfriars Project, which discovered Richard III’s remains.

Where and when were you born?
Leicester in July 1958.

How has this shaped you?
I acquired an interest in archaeology and history from an early age through visits to Leicester’s excellent museums, from inspirational teachers and from a family who indulged me with trips to many historic monuments. To live in a culturally diverse city with such ancient origins is hugely enriching.

When you first saw the curved spine of the skeleton under the car park, did you know you were looking at Richard III’s remains?
Yes! Our archaeological investigations to that point had shown we were getting closer to the choir of the friary, where historical records suggested Richard was buried, so seeing the skeleton of a man with a spinal abnormality and trauma to the skull in a roughly dug grave was pretty conclusive. Supporting evidence from different lines of enquiry, including forensic pathology, DNA and radiocarbon dating, subsequently proved beyond reasonable doubt that we had found Richard III.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Well, they don’t get any better than the moment [fellow archaeologist] Mathew Morris informed me about the discovery. I can’t repeat what I said, but it was a moment of utter disbelief.

What has the discovery done for archaeology’s public profile?
Archaeology is about uncovering the past, not hunting for missing persons, but the global interest in this research has had huge ramifications in terms of international public outreach, in interest in archaeology and its ability to reshape our view of our world.

The public tends to forget that the excavation made multiple discoveries. What were the other significant finds?
The “Lady in Lead” was quite something – the first intact medieval stone sarcophagus with inner lead coffin to be unearthed in Leicester during modern excavations.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
As my father will tell you, I wanted to be an archaeologist from a very early age (five or six): even then I used to dig up the back garden in search of old coins. He wasn’t best pleased!

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Never bet that you’ll eat your hat if you manage to discover the remains of a long-lost king: you might be held to it. But seriously, I’d say try to seize every opportunity that presents itself.

If you were a prospective student facing £9,000 fees, would you go again or get a job?
That’s easy: I’d go again. University meant I could pursue a subject I was passionate about that would provide me with transferable skills to assist me in following my chosen career path. My children have gone to university and I’m proud to work at one.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not to have travelled more and seen the world in my twenties. I had the inclination, but sadly not the resources.

What keeps you awake at night?
In a professional archaeological unit like ours, we can be running a dozen or more sites concurrently, so it is not that unusual to wake up in the night remembering things I should have done or information I should have imparted to others.

What do you do for fun?
Countryside walks, socialising, trips to the pub and so forth, but also fixing things (old cars and anything mechanical), music (especially jazz on 78s) and creative time in my shed making things out of timber, always accompanied by Radio 4.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Best: fieldwork, the joy of archaeological discovery and sharing it with others. Worst: red tape and bureaucracy in the process of digs.

If you were the UK universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce?
I’d make widening participation my biggest mission: thousands who deserve to go to university still miss out because of their background or financial situation. We should make it our priority to open universities up to them.

john.elmes@tesglobal.com

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POSTSCRIPT:

Article originally published as: HE & me (11 June 2015)

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