Last week, UK’s Channel 4 aired a documentary about an archaeological dig in search of Richard III. I found the show really illuminating. Not because of its intended content – I actually thought the way they presented everything was neither here (archaeology) nor there (history). No, what I found fascinating was what the documentary revealed, rather unintentionally, about how little understanding some professionals have of people’s sense of heritage, and how unprepared they are for dealing with it.
Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society was the driver behind the project (the society funded it). She was clearly deeply and emotionally connected to Richard III as a man and a king whose memory had been mutilated. Everything about the dig had a meaning to her: the ‘R’ written on the parking space under which (apparently) they found Richard III’s body. The rain clouds that drew up when they came upon his bones. As she watched the bones being carefully freed of earth, she started to cry and practically hyperventilate.
The presenter, Simon Farnaby, a comedian and writer, clearly did not know what to do with this reaction or Langley’s emotional connection to Richard III in general. Gazing down into the pit alongside Langley, he talked of how ‘weird’ it was to be ‘digging up a dead body’. His choice of words said it all: while she talked about ‘finding him’ and ‘Richard’, to Farnaby this was something rather more remote and barely connected to an actual human life.
The scientists of course didn’t make this connection either. To Dr Jo Appleby, the osteologist (bone expert), this was clearly neither about ‘Richard’ nor ‘dead bodies’. This was a matter of an object to be scientifically examined in order to make a statement based on statistical probability about whether or not this was indeed the remains of a historically documented person (phew). No humanity left in there at all. At first, this amused me – I thought of my own careful language when I write anything about my research. Quickly, however, I became uncomfortable. I could not help but feel that Appleby’s attitude toward Langley was downright patronising, never mind devoid of any understanding. A scene that highlighted this for me in stark contrasts was when Langley suggested that Appleby wrap the bones in Richard III’s colours for removal from site. Appleby refused: ‘I’m not sure I’m very happy about doing that’, she said, allegedly because she felt it would be an inappropriate action if DNA testing later showed this was not Richard III (it didn’t and it was).
I have no issue with Appleby’s refusal per se. What I did take issue with was how she made no effort to understand or show respect for Langley’s feelings throughout the documentary. Later, Appleby and a colleague told Langley that Richard III did have a ‘hunchback’, thus using a term to which it was clear Langley would take objection, it being at the heart of the defamation of Richard III’s character (they later qualified the ‘hunchback’ to have been a slight curvature of the spine that would have been hard to spot under clothes). When Langley spoke of Richard III’s reputation as an able military leader, Appleby brought up a ‘source she could not now remember’, but which described Richard III as ‘effeminate’. Why?
For me, the documentary highlighted several points. Neither Farnaby nor Appleby are likely to consider themselves heritage professionals, and yet here they were dealing with heritage and being confronted directly with the person holding a heritage belief. Farnaby seemed merely befuddled, well-meaning but lacking depth. Appleby on the other hand acted in a manner that seemed very arrogant, considering her own ‘evidence’ as above Langley’s heritage belief.
In reality, science and heritage aren’t even in competition. They can, actually, live peacefully side by side, if it weren’t for the ‘specialist’s efforts to put all the facts straight. There is a way of sharing evidence, and you can do it respectfully and without missionary zeal. That is where the ‘heritage’ in ‘professional’ comes in – it does take training and learning to get it right.
As for Langley – I don’t share her heritage belief, and I’m really not that fussed about Richard III. But I thought it a poignant fact that if it hadn’t been for her and her heritage belief, the dig, and the celebrated discovery, and the documentary and Leicester’s (or York’s) future visitor attraction would never have happened.