Saturday, 15 September 2012

Great Day Out at Greyfriars

Today I visited the Greyfriars site in central Leicester. I had heard about the open days that were announced after the Wednesday press conference so I thought I'd have a look at the archaeology with my own eyes. How would Leicester turn a few empty trenches into a tourist attraction at the last minute, so not to disappoint the legions of interested souls? I'll be honest - I was skeptical. I thought I'd arrive, walk through a car park, look at some building foundations, see a hole where Richard III had rested for 500 years - then go home; but boy was I wrong!

I was so very impressed by what was set up, as well as the turnout by Leicester folk, old and young. You enter the site via the street named Grey Friars (a good start) and you are presented with a long queue. Yes queuing is never something we enjoy (even if we are British) but when you join it you are given a very interesting information sheet that really helps to pass the time. Before you know it you're near the front and you receive another, even longer, information sheet. You can learn all about Richard III and the archaological dig before you even enter the site and when you do, there are people dressed in 15th century attire who are waiting to talk to you about life in the times of King Richard!

There is a lady dressed in period costume who explains how they made arrows for the enormous longbows, a man who would make and mend things out of leather - a character like this would apparently have been part of the king's band of men, to make sure that nobody in the legion was unprepared for battle.

You then move onto two battle-ready soldiers, who are in Leicester from Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre to tell the public all about bowmen and cross-bowmen who would have took part in the fabled Battle of Bosworth where Richard III lost his life.

Once the talks were over, two archaeology specialists meet you at the trenches to tell you what exactly you are looking at in the trenches, which was a godsend! You can really see the zig-zag pattern where the floor tiles would have once been placed, steps in the friary, a bench, doorways and walls. It was a fascinating insight into old Leicester.

You then join yet another queue as you edge slowly towards the resting place of King Richard III. It's funny because all everybody is looking at is a human-sized hole in the ground but everybody was truly excited about seeing it, and mesmerised when they finally did! The below photo shows you the final resting place of King Richard III (fingers crossed) so in terms of Leicestershire sites of historical interest, right now there is nothing more thought-provoking than this.

The top yellow marker is where the feet of the body were found while the bottom marker is where the head lay. As you may already know, the body was that of an adult male, was battle-scarred, had scoliosis and was buried in the choir of the Greyfriars church - the exact same place where historical sources say Richard's body lay. All of the evidence to date points to these remains being those of Richard III, but time will tell - 12 weeks of time to be exact - when we finally get the DNA results back.

You exit the site onto New Street and as you turn to the right you are presented with the magnificent Leicester Cathedral - the most likely new resting place of the king if he does indeed stay in Leicester. Across the road from the Cathedral is The Guildhall, the location of last week's press conference. Inside they have a glass case displaying the fantastic finds from the archaeological dig - the Medieval Silver Long Cross Penny, medieval pottery, roof tiles and ridge crest.

There are beautifully-decorated medieval phoenix, dove and dragon floor tiles, as well as a piece of Roman pottery and a Roman coin to boot!

The final thing to look at are the pieces of church masonry on the floor next to the glass cabinet. You can see just how magnificent the architecture of the lost church of the Greyfriars once was and with hundreds of years passing since it was pulled down, we are lucky that anything at all has survived.

After leaving The Guildhall, I had a look around Leicester Cathedral once again, to see the place where Richard III will be laid to rest before the end of the year, if, of course, it is him.

I have been so impressed with what has been organised in such a short space of time to bring this amazing find to life for the people of Leicester. I started the day thinking that I would be looking at a few empty trenches, but I left the city centre feeling like I was part of this amazing discovery and I was all the more proud to be from Leicester!

Well done to everyone involved - you should be all proud of yourselves. Open days continue at the sites for the next couple of weekends. Scroll down to one of my earlier posts to find out when you can get involved.  

by Matthew Sibson

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