It's sad to be locking the gate for the last time today

Posted on 28 July 2013 by Mathew Morris - Fieldwork director and archaeologist at ULAS
Matthew Morris takes the first look at the Stone Coffin contents.

Matthew Morris takes the first look at the Stone Coffin contents.

Well, this is it. Our four weeks on site at Greyfriars are officially over. I have just said good bye to the last visitors of the day and locked the gate to the viewing platform for the final time. The last archaeological feature has been dug and recorded; we have said goodbye to our two fantastic interns Claire and Emma; all our equipment and all the newly discovered artefacts have been taken up to the university and we have celebrated the conclusion of another successful project in proper archaeological style - we went to the pub for a well deserved pint!

But what have we achieved? It has been observed by several visitors that this site keeps on giving - first King Richard III; then an intact medieval stone coffin which, when opened, contained a largely intact lead coffin. What next? Over the last four weeks we have uncovered valuable new information about the chancel of the Greyfriars church, evidence which will further our understanding of this important medieval building. We now have a better idea of the church's layout and how Richard III's grave fits inside the church choir. We have found a small fragment of in-situ tile floor, the first piece of intact flooring to be found inside the church; and a new building has been found to the south of the church. This is a substantial structure with large buttressed walls and it could possibly be the remains of an earlier church or chapel or another building connected with the friary.

Then there is the stone coffin, the first fully intact medieval stone coffin to be discovered in Leicester during an archaeological excavation. The outer coffin is carved from limestone and is 2.12 meters long, 0.6 meters wide at the 'head' end, 0.3 meters wide at the 'foot' end and 0.3 meters deep. On Tuesday (23 July) we carefully removed the lid. It was so heavy it took eight people to lift it up. Inside we found an inner lead coffin, intact except for a hole at one end of the casket through which we could tantalisingly see someone's feet. This inner coffin is likely to contain a high-status burial, although we still don't know who it contains. No writing was visible on the coffin lid but it does bear a crude cross soldered into the metal.

Lifting the lid on the Stone Coffin
Lifting the lid on the Stone Coffin

Despite the atrocious weather on Tuesday we were able to successfully lift the lead coffin out of the stone coffin intact and it will be opened in due course once tests have been carried put to find the best way of opening it without damaging the remains inside. This was a first for all of us on site. None of the team had ever excavated an intact stone coffin before, let alone a lead coffin as well and for me it was as exciting as finding Richard III.

The Stone Coffin at the Greyfriars dig site.
The Stone Coffin at the Greyfriars dig site.

It hasn't all been successful, however. One of the goals of this project was to find some evidence of the church's nave and walking place to the west of the choir. In this we have failed. In the area we could investigate, these parts of the church appear to have been completely destroyed by later activity. This is the nature of archaeology. We never see the complete picture but no evidence can still be useful because it adds detail to how the site has changed over time.

What happens next then? Well, all those artefacts we have found, the fantastic floor tiles, bits of pottery, metalwork, glass and human remains have to be cleaned, cataloged and analysed. Hand drawn records have to be put together and turned into computerised plans, photographs sorted, notes checked. Then we have to starting making sense of it all, fitting all the evidence together until we have a new story about Greyfriars to tell.

I hope you've enjoyed these blogs. If you managed to make it down to the site, I hope you enjoyed your visit. But for now? Watch this space...

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About the blog

Keep up to date with the progress of the Grey Friars Dig Part II throughout July 2013 via regular updates on this site. The body of King Richard III was discovered here in 2012 – who and what else lies beneath this now-famous car park?


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