An archivist from the National Portrait Gallery in London recently discovered relics belonging to King Edward the Second. Labeled only as ‘Royal Relics’, they were found within a cigarette box dated to 31 August 1871, and include wood and fabric thought to be from the coffin, as well as detailed sketches of the skeleton itself. The relics were taken by the first Director Sir George Scharf, who was present at the opening of the king’s Westminster tomb in 1871. The director was also present at the grave openings of the graves of Edward VI, Henry VII, James I and Elizabeth of York. All of these accounts have been taken in detail and are currently available online in the National Portrait Archives (Art Daily 2010).
Not only is this important in that it was discovered within a wider program to digitize all historic documents at the National Portrait Gallery, but we can begin to see the beginnings of bioarchaeology in his work. Scharf, in his sketchbook, notes a variety of important traits about the king’s skull, and even compares it with that of the queen, Anne of Bohemia, in order to gain a better understanding. First, he notes the presence of possible dessicated brain material found within it. Second, he compares the lack of sagittal sutures in the king to the intricate ones found on the queen. Third, he takes a variety of measurements including height of orbits, height of nasal aperture, distance between base and zygomatic, and total breadth of skull (Scharf). This reopening served both as a time to repair the grave, remember the king and conduct research.
100 years earlier, the tomb of Edward I was also opened in Westminster Abbey in order to check on the state of the remains. It was also to confirm that his nickname of ‘Longshanks’ was due to his height. Measurement was made and he was determined to be 6’2″, tall for the 14th century when he was ruling (Archaeologia ii).
Throughout the Medieval period, graves of kings and saints were reopened to allow for the removal of various bones, articles of clothing and portions of the coffin to be used as relics. Only days after his death, King Edwaerd the Martyr, from the 11th century, had his bones removed and placed in a reliquary in order to perform miracles for the area. Relics were said to heal ills, and create good luck for those who took pilgrimage to see them, or those who possessed them. The origin of most of these relics however is dubious, and theft from tombs is highly likely (Kleiner 2008:310). It was even noted by Scharf that during the 1871 opening of Richard II’s tomb that a number of bones had been removed through holes in the side of it.
Today, the reopening of famous graves is done in order to further investigate some of the mysteries of the past. A recent example is the exhumation of Tycho Brahe from a cemetery in Prague. The noted astronomer from the 16th century mysteriously died after a dinner party in 1601, though urban legend attributed his death to kidney stones. The skeleton was exhumed earlier this month in order to determine the true cause of death and learn more about his life. However, the team was only given four days in which to do research, and the body has already been re-interred. No information has currently been released regarding the cause of death, but CT scans, stable isotope analysis, DNA, and other tests were run during the four day research project. Already stories about the loss of part of his nose during a sword fight have been confirmed by visual observation (Huffington Post 2010).
Bottom line, reopening the past can be a good thing. We can assess damage done by grave thieves, trace the relic trade, better understand the lives of people in the past, and most importantly, check for the existence of zombies. But seriously, when it comes down to the ethical and moral decision of whether the grave should be opened, I think the Tycho Brahe exhumation did it right. Do it fast, get as much information as you can, and do it in a way that both respects and commemorates the deceased.
Art Daily. 2010. London’s National Portrait Gallery Finds Relics of King Richard II. In Art Daily News Online. http://www.artdaily.org/index.asp?int_sec=2&int_new=42588
Scharf. 1871. Sketches from 1871. London Portrait Gallery Archives Online. http://archivecatalogue.npg.org.uk/
Archaeologia. ii. Sourced from Wikipedia: Edward I. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_I_of_England#CITEREFPrestwich1997
Kleiner. 2008. Gardner’s Art through the Ages. http://books.google.com/books?id=IJrN8rDirxkC&pg=PA310&dq=england+relics+bones&hl=en&ei=r7fqTM7OFcuXnwfkyrWKDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CEYQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=england%20relics%20bones&f=false
Huffington Post. 2010. Tycho Brahe. Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/15/tycho-brahe-16th-century-_n_783781.html