Digging for History

I often joke about how my memory, with three children age five and under, fails me as often as my knees and ankles these days. It is why I marvel at people like my father who can recite passages from Shakespeare from memory even though he and my mother raised four children in under five years.

The old image of King Richard III

I have acquired my dad’s love of quotations and a few through the years remain with me today. Maybe it was because of an English teacher in high school and one in college who stressed all things Shakespeare or maybe it was because of what I heard from numerous protesters around Wisconsin two years ago or maybe it’s because I’m a Chicago Cubs fan, but a single quote from the play, Richard III,  has stayed with me: “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

Besides that quote, the only thing I remembered from that play was that the former English monarch was malformed, disfigured, hunchbacked, a not-so-pleasant fellow at all. As wonderful a bard as Shakespeare was, he apparently played loose with some facts as he described the last English king of the Middle Ages.

The stories from the University of Leicester this week about the successful digging up a parking lot and identifying through DNA testing that a skeleton found there was Richard III read like a modern-day combination of Indiana Jones and CSI. There are ten terrific videos in all from the university chronicling its efforts. The science shows he was not disfigured at all. His arms were the same length.

New image of King Richard III

Here’s a PBS video link to its story on the discovery by the way.

It’s a fascinating combination of modern science and ancient history and reminds me of a great metaphor I once heard from the preeminent historian in the state of Colorado, Dr.  Tom Noel, or Dr. Colorado as he’s affectionately known.

Sitting in Dr. C’s basement in high red leather chairs discussing a project I was working on, he said point-blank to me, “What are you going to do with everything you know?” I hemmed and hawed, stating that I still had numerous questions to answer. He interrupted and said, “The best thing a historian can discover is ground fertile enough that future historians wish to dig there in the future.”

Take Abraham Lincoln for example. Dozens of new books seemingly are released on his life, his presidency every single year, many with new interpretations of old facts or even with new facts altogether. Authors continue to find fertile soil time and again.

In the case of Richard III, fertile soil literally preserved a story and re-wrote a legacy. It’s a nice lesson for all of us, that our knowledge can evolve, sometimes even centuries later.

In all likelihood, this latest tale won’t be the last one about the former king. In fact, I was sent this little meme on Facebook just yesterday by a good friend. Maybe that’s the next story we’ll hear about :)

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