By Professor Lin Foxhall, University of Leicester.
Most of the time we academics beaver away, quietly making our contributions to human knowledge in baby steps. Naturally we’re keen to share what we are doing with the wider world, but generally no one takes much notice, even when we try to explain what’s so exciting. And then, every once in a while, we turn up something that captures the public imagination in a way that is totally unexpected and completely overwhelming. What thrills non-specialists about our work is not always what we ourselves find most fascinating. But, that does not mean that the questions other people ask are not good or valid. For academics to suggest that the only important questions are the ones we ourselves formulate is arrogant and patronizing. There are lots of questions we can’t answer, but then it’s our duty to explain why.
Of course we expected media attention when we discovered a skeleton which might be that of King Richard III back in September 2012, and we understood this would overshadow all other interesting aspects of the Grey Friars project. But, the level, extent or intensity of global media interest in the story surprised us, and has been almost unrelenting since then. We were very cautious in our initial announcement. We made clear that far more research was needed, that many different lines of evidence had to be explored and the results brought together. This is exactly what we have done. Constant media pressure raised the threat that premature results could be leaked and misleadingly reported. One media organization insisted that they would run a story on us even if we didn’t cooperate with them – had we not, presumably they would have filled the gaps with speculation. Releasing our results piecemeal would simply have spread confusion and muddied the waters, since individual results were not meaningful in isolation. Nonetheless, during the past five months we were accused of holding back decisive information. And yet, as we involved more colleagues in the research within and beyond the University of Leicester, the risk of leaks grew ever greater.
No responsible academic wants ‘publication by media’, especially when the media, not the scholars, control dissemination. Had we not been certain that our results were sufficiently robust to stand up to the normal processes of academic peer review, we would not have authorized a press conference. Our university press office and communications team would have supported us in that decision, as they have supported us brilliantly throughout. The integrity of the research always came first. Releasing the results in public, in advance of academic publication, has paradoxically, allowed us to keep a firm grip on the research.
What it all means for history will take some time to consider. However, it should be obvious, especially to those of us whose expertise lies in the ancient world, that uncovering a major new body of archaeological evidence will inevitably lead to revised interpretations of written texts. Already, at a very basic level, we can show that some historical sources were wrong while others were more correct than we had realized but not in ways that we had expected. It’s critical also to think about what the texts don’t mention, and why.
Of course, there is more to the study of the past than a king found under a car park. And the story has focused a lot more attention on a single skeleton than usual. Archaeologists rarely find known individuals, and already we are discovering that the fixed point provided by someone so well documented is helping us to understand better the lives and deaths of the ordinary anonymous people we normally study. But, most importantly, for many people this discovery opens up a new view of the past and why its study is worth supporting. So, let’s celebrate the victory for academic research as a whole.
Professor Lin Foxhall is the Head of the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History and Professor of Greek Archaeology and History.
This article first appeared in Times Higher Education on 14th February.