Category Archives: Archaeology

Leicester’s Famous Bones

Model of Richard III's Skull at the Leicester Guildhall(Photo: Tim Jones)
Model of Richard III’s Skull at the Leicester Guildhall(Photo: Tim Jones)

Spending time in my original home town of Leicester last week was a chance to get better acquainted with the city’s recently recovered celebrity, King Richard III no less, at an exhibition in the ancient Guildhall.  I also got to visit another of my favourite Leicester museums, The New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, which has its own bones to shout about.

Leicester Guildhall (Photo:Tim Jones)
Leicester Guildhall (Photo:Tim Jones)

Richard III

The search for Richard started in August last year, when the University of Leicester working with the King Richard III Society discovered and recovered a skeleton – everything but its feet – from a central Leicester car park: a car park that overlays the site of the former Greyfriars Priory.

Richard was buried in Greyfriars Priory(Photo:Tim Jones)
Richard was buried in Greyfriars Priory(Photo:Tim Jones)
Plaque to Richard III on Greyfriars, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)
Plaque to Richard III on Grey Friars, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)

With a barrage of forensic tests and historical interpretation brought to bear over several months, including a DNA match with a living descendant, the remains were finally declared the real deal in February this year.

An unlikely prospect made good for historians and archaeologists, I’m guessing I’m not the only one raised in the city for whom the find has a special fascination.  I lived close to the King Richard’s Road; and as kids we visited nearby Bosworth Field, where Richard fell in 1485; and I can remember some rivalry with the local ‘King Dick’s’ school.   The science labs where I studied for A-Levels were literally a stone’s throw from the burial site.  I’m not suggesting Leicester folk spend all their time sat round thinking about history, but there’s always been a general awareness in the air.

Leicester are proud of their find (Photo:Tim Jones)
Leicester are proud of their find. There are several posters like this around the town (Photo:Tim Jones)

Richard’s character in life, unambiguously portrayed by Shakespeare as one of murderous villainy, is disputed – not least by the splendidly motivated Richard III Society.  But there’s no doubting his popularity in death – not if the queues to the exhibition are anything to go by; I gave up on my first attempt and came back early the next day.

Over a thousand visitors a day (Photo:Tim Jones)
Over a thousand visitors a day (Photo:Tim Jones)

Rather than the real skeleton being on display, there’s a model of the skull and a light-table graphic representation of the bones.  The side-on curved spine characteristic of scoliosis is clearly visible: doubtless the origin of historical reports/myths/exaggerations on Richard’s appearance and gait.

 Skull model and skeleton image (Photo:Tim Jones)
Skull model and skeleton image (Photo:Tim Jones)
 Richard III Exhibition, Guildhall, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)
Richard III Exhibition, Guildhall, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)

The suite of scientific tests used to characterise the remains included DNA Sequencing for identification, Radiocarbon Dating for age at death (1450-1538), Stable Isotope Analysis (tooth enamel) and Calculus Analysis (tooth plaque) for diet, health and lifestyle.  The Leicester University team successfully matched mitochondrial DNA from Richard’s teeth with that from his living descendant Michael Ibsen.  For more on the science, see Leicester University’s Richard III website.

New Walk Museum

Passing on Richard’s queue that first day gave me plenty of time to explore Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.

 New Walk Museum and Art Gallery (Photo:Tim Jones)
New Walk Museum and Art Gallery (Photo:Tim Jones)

New Walk Museum & Art Gallery

I’m spoilt for museums in London, but still have a soft spot for Leicester’s New Walk.  It was the first museum I visited as a child: with an indoor goldfish pond and scary Egyptian mummies standing at the top of the stairs as you went in.  The fish have gone, but the mummies are still there, better contextualised now in a special ancient Egypt exhibit.  And overall they’ve done a great job of keeping up with the times.

On this occasion, supporting a special exhibition on DNA,  I caught a lunchtime lecture on the human genome, by Dr Ed Hollox, a Leicester University geneticist whose talk focused on the genetic basis and geographical distribution of milk (lactose) intolerance.

Part of the interactive Inside DNA exhibition at New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
Part of the interactive Inside DNA exhibition at New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)

The Leicester group have also printed a 130 volume hard copy of the entire human genome – as a communication exercise in getting over the sheer size of the thing.  The volumes, printed in tiny 4 point font, are on display at New Walk.

 Printed in 4 point text 130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)
Printed in 4 point text 130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)
130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)
130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)

The Rutland Dinosaur

Back to the bones, and this c.168 million year old Ceteosaurus Oxoniensis , known as The Rutland Dinosaur.

The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester's New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester’s New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester's New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester’s New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)

The long-necked herbivore’s fossilised remains, recovered in 1968 from Great Casterton, Rutland – the county just East of Leicestershire – have a special claim as the most complete (about 40%)  Sauropod found in the United Kingdom.


I’m not alone in my childhood memories of New Walk Museum.  In this video, Sir David Attenborough, who hails from Leicester and stays close to the museum, recalls his early impressions.  Incidentally, the chair he mentions, belonging to the giant Daniel Lambert, is now in Leicester’s Newarke Houses Museum – but that’s a different story.

Let’s not forget too that one of the oldest fossils in the world is kept at New Walk: the pre-Cambrian Charnia fossil, as featured in Attenborough’s First Life series (for more on that, see Return to the Land of Charnia).

All of which lets me finish on a nice obscure link, almost as unlikely as finding Richard III in a car park.  Which is to realise the roof tiles from the Greyfriars Priory, recovered from the excavation and featured in the Guildhall exhibition, come from the very same Swithland slate quarry where Charnia was found.

Swithland slate roof tiles recovered from Greyfriars Priory (Photo: Tim Jones)
Swithland slate roof tiles recovered from Greyfriars Priory (Photo: Tim Jones)

World War II Road Block – An Eerie Reminder of Darker Times

Here’s some not so sophisticated, but still deadly serious, military technology we discovered while walking along the river bank this morning.

Anti-tank Road Block
Anti-tank road block near Sunbury

Thankfully it never happened, but in 1940 there was every expectation that Britain would be invaded by Germany.  One preparation for that was the building of a series of defensive lines around London and other areas of the country.

Anti-tank roadblock concrete cubes near Sunbury
Blocks extend to the water's edge

The example here is a road block designed to slow down tanks and other armoured vehicles as they progressed in expected Blitzkrieg fashion across the green and pleasant land.  The concrete cubes extend down to the water’s edge, leaving a small gap that could be plugged with a removable barrier, possibly a duplicate of the piece of bent railway track, or hairpin, still in place.

Bent railway track or 'hairpin' anti-tank barricade
Bent railway track or 'hairpin' barricade

I did a bit of fishing around, and discovered this particular defensive position close to Sunbury-on-Thames was part of the Outer London Stop Line.  Other types of defense included concrete pillboxes, minefields and trenches, plus use of natural features like the river here.

A road block like this one would likely be defended by another firing position nearby, so it wasn’t just a case of the enemy turning up and spending five minutes pulling out the barriers.

There are many similar features around UK, but I don’t think the seriousness of the threat at the time, or the extent of the defenses put in place to counter it, are widely known.

It’s also sobering to think these blocks were put down only 22 years before I was born.

More on British anti-invasion preparations of Word War II here.

Of Blitz and Bomb Shelters

Watching the last episode of Tony Robinson’s ‘Blitz Street’ on Channel 4 this week has prompted a few thoughts and surprising memories.

Children made homeless in the London Blitz (Wikimedia Commons)

The four-part series revisited the intensive ‘Blitz’ bombing of Britain during the Second World War by recreating a wartime street and subjecting it to progressively larger explosions, simulating the range of bombs and missiles delivered by the Nazis.  The real Blitz bombing was focused on London, but also other cities including: Liverpool, Hull, Coventry, and the city where I was later raised – Leicester.

The show was framed as a serious science experiment that would, as well as being entertaining, generate new data for historians.  To that end, the houses were wired with pressure sensors to measure the intensity of the blasts, and the associated destruction was captured with high speed photography.

For example, readings taken inside a recreated domestic Anderson Shelter, constructed from corrugated steel and earth, revealed how under certain bombing conditions the pressure wave would be sufficient to kill the occupants, consistent with contemporary reports of whole families being found externally unscathed but dead from internal injuries.   Under other conditions, the test explosions suggested that simply hiding under the stairs had offered adequate protection.

Amazingly, a bottle of milk parked outside one of the houses survived the entire simulated campaign, ranging from the explosion of a 50kg High Explosive (HE) bomb, right through to a simulated V2 rocket impact.

Well, what can you say?  Great television.  And that surviving bottle of milk was a gift to the producers.  For sure, some will criticise various points of historic content and scientific accuracy.  Viewers have commented on the under-representation of Hull as the second most bombed city after London; and I was bemused at the placement of the V2 simulated charge behind an earth bank that seemed to guarantee it wouldn’t totally obliterate the set.  Others might find the whole thing an unnecessary waste of building materials and explosives.

However the popular verdict washes out, I thought the show’s mix of social history with science and technology successfully outweighed any failings.  Here we saw one of the more negative applications of science and technology in context: Science Communication, right?  But more so, a graphic raising of awareness that war isn’t just something that happens to others on CNN.

Beyond the politically incorrect schoolboy/girl appeal of blowing things up, Blitz Street got me digging deeper into the science behind the show, looking out my old university notes on flow simulation, super-sonic pressure wave propagation and nozzle design (re the V2).

On a completely different tack, the show reminded me of the many happy (formative?) hours I’d spent as a teenager inside an air-raid shelter.

How come?  I may be old enough to have benefited from real chemistry sets and the relaxed authority that accommodated them, but I certainly wasn’t around in the Second World War. I did however grow up assuming everyone had a WWII surface air-raid shelter in their back garden, like this one at my parents home in Leicester.

air-raid shelter
Second World War surface air-raid shelter

I’ve always known this cube, with its 14 inch thick brick walls and reinforced concrete ceiling as simply ‘The Shelter’.

air-raid shelter
Walls are about 14" thick

When the family moved here in the seventies, the interior was still in immediate post-war condition, including wooden bunk supports for two, maybe four max, persons.  To protect from lime, the concrete ceiling had been lined with fascinating newspapers of the period, discovered when I converted The Shelter to a photographic darkroom, re-papering it with pages from Amateur Photographer Magazine.

At the age of twelve or so, The Shelter became my first chemistry laboratory.  Minimal ventilation via perforated bricks at the top of each thick wall meant that reactions that were exothermic or likely to generate noxious gases were relegated to the annexed greenhouse.  For example, anything where chlorine or oxides of nitrogen were produced, or compounds were combined with acids or oxidants; and anything involving organic compounds.  All these were better suited to the fume-cupboard environment of the greenhouse.

air-raid shelter
Concrete lintel above entrance

An interesting design feature in the wall at right-angles to the main entrance, is a sort of escape hatch comprising a two foot square of bricks where the cement has been replaced with plain sand.   The idea, I presume, was that if the house got bombed and fell onto the shelter, the occupants, safe inside, could kick out the bricks on the adjacent wall.  It’s been mortared up since, but you can still see the outline in the photo.  Originally, an iron bar extended out from the hatch that an external rescuer could pull on to release the brickwork.

Air-raid shelter emergency exit
Air-raid shelter emergency exit (under concrete lintel)

Now of course I’m keen to know how my Shelter would have fared against Tony Robinson’s bombs – something to be investigated when I find an appropriate (=free) fluid dynamics package.

And from a social history perspective, I’m intrigued as to why the house had it’s own surface air-raid shelter in the first place.  A scan of GoogleEarth suggests none of the neighbours have anything similar; and it’s not the sort of structure that could be easily or inexpensively removed.  So more research needed there.

The house wasn’t situated next to a munitions factory or similar target; it’s just one house in a row of similar suburban dwellings.  Maybe the owner was just nervous enough, and had the cash, to go one better than the standard Anderson shelter.  I’ve heard of similar domestic shelters associated with homes where military personnel were billeted.  A US Airborne division was stationed in the city, so maybe that’s the reason.  Either way, it was more than paranoia.  According to The Leicester Chronicler, two hundred and fifty homes in Leicester were completely destroyed by bombing.  A map of all bombs dropped on Leicester during WWII is here at

Anyhow, looks like Channel 4 at least succeeded in inspiring a nostalgic ramble;  make of it what you will.

Iron before the Iron Age

Just a short note to share with you one of the many wonders I stumbled upon at the British Museum yesterday.  This is an Inuit Lance Head, displayed in the Enlightenment Gallery (in the King’s Library). It was collected in Greenland in 1811 by John Ross while searching for the North West Passage.

Inuit meteorite-tipped spear (British Museum Enlightenment Gallery)

What’s significant about this is the metal tip, which is formed not from man-made iron or steel, but from meteorite material that dropped from the sky.  The whole story is here in more detail at the British Museum website.

I hadn’t thought about this rather obvious application, so the piece was doubly impressive and, while the lance tip is relatively young, much earlier examples have been found around the world that pre-date iron-making technology.  The rarity of the source ensured knives and other objects fashioned from meteorites carried special value and were likely reserved for ceremonial use.

If you fancy one of these, the modern equivalent is still being made today.

Modern meteorite knife
Modern meteorite knife (Credit:


When it comes to buying books, I’m either very keen and go straight for the new hardback edition, or I’ll trawl the bargain basements for unwanted and long forgotten editions selling at three for a fiver.  I’ve just finished one of the latter, and can belatedly vouch that Heather Pringle’s Mummy Congress is the most interesting, original, and frankly amusing treatises on preserved corpses you’ll find.

Maybe it’s old news (Mummy Congress was published in 2001), but it’s ghoulishly intriguing to learn that mummies have until quite recently been used to make paint for artists. Human flesh and bone, combined with the resinous embalming materials of the time, make all the difference in achieving the silky texture only Mummy can deliver.  Available into the early years of the twentieth century, the paint left the market when the supply of mummies dried up.

Silky Texture
Paint made from mummies had a silky texture

Further research convinces me that despite the horrified reaction of artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Edward Burne-Jones, on discovering the true nature of what they had happily been throwing at the canvas for years (Burne-Jones even gave his tube of Mummy a decent burial in the back garden), our national galleries must be displaying a fair selection of canvases and boards that are essentially smeared with dead people.

According to Pringle’s sources, Martin Drolling’s L’interieur d’une cuisine, now in the Louvre, is a prime candidate, although in this case the mummies were of more recent French origin. But what about Burne-Jones? His pictures do have that atmospheric brownish aura about them.

Drolling’s L’interieur d’une cuisine
Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin (1874). Nice browns.

Science, in the form of mass spectroscopy, can help identify ‘mummy’ paintings.  The molecules associated with bitumen, asphalt, and human remains all have their tell-tale signature.   Yet the technique hasn’t been widely used, probably due to the disincentive of an invasive procedure, the results of which can only turn people off.

If anyone knows more about this fascinating topic please get in touch.