The Ancestry.com.au team were honoured to meet the British archaeologist who helped unearth the remains of King Richard III from a Leicester car park.
Dr. Appleby’s team recently solved the 500-year-old mystery of King Richard III’s final resting place — they found and identified his remains in the ruins of a Greyfriars church, buried beneath a modern-day car park.
Ancestry’s Brad caught up with Jo at the New Zealand Family History Fair in August to hear more about the discovery, her family history and the similarities between genealogy and archeology….
BRAD: So, before we begin, how do you like to be referred to, is it Doctor Jo Appleby, is it Dr Jo … ?
JO: You can just call me Jo.
BRAD: Jo. Thank you very much. Is this your first family history fair?
JO: This is my first family history fair, yes.
JO: I’ve been incredibly impressed with how much there is that people can see here and how helpful everybody is and just the huge variety of material you can access when doing genealogical research.
BRAD: You’re an academic so research is something you’re clearly very familiar with?
BRAD: When you look at the kind of research that people do in family history or genealogical do you see parallels with academic research and do you see any clear differences?
JO: I think I see a lot of parallels. It’s that same process that you have to be absolutely reliant on your sources. You have to go back and check, check, check everything. You can’t just accept that somebody hands you a tattered piece of paper with your family tree, that’s not what you need. You have to go back and check the documents and you have to find those records and that’s what I’ve really been getting out of the family history fair, seeing people going back and doing that.
BRAD: You know when I look at people doing their research and I look at the passion people have, chasing something through the historical records, do you see that on the academic side? Do people get that passionate about it. You know, those in the non-academic world don’t really know this, almost esoteric, stuff that happens behind these wonderful sandstone walls. What’s it really like to do research in an academic environment?
JO: You have to bear in mind that academics become academics because they are incredibly nosy people and they just want to find stuff out. So we’re absolutely as interested in what we do as those people that are going off looking at their family trees. They might be doing it as amateurs and we might be getting paid to do it but sometimes I’m not sure why we get paid to do it because we all love what we do and we wouldn’t do it otherwise. So I think we’re very lucky we can do it as a professional job but I do think we do have that same huge enthusiasm and it’s that thrill of discovery really. It’s being able to find out something that nobody’s known before, or that been forgotten or lost. It’s really great.
BRAD: You mention the thrill of discovery and you might have seen it this weekend that people react emotionally to the kind of things they uncover. When you’re going through it, and perhaps using Richard as an example, was it an emotional experience?
JO: It depends what you mean by emotional? So, I don’t tend to find that I react to seeing human skeletons by being upset by them because it’s part of my everyday existence and it’s what I do all the time but is does make you very thoughtful about people and you do become very aware of the trials and tribulations that they must have gone through. So there’s always that slight sense of connection when you’re doing this kind of work but it’s maybe not that same sort of sense of emotional linkages you get when researching your own family.
BRAD: But, you know, I do a lot of research that isn’t related to me but I still get a strong emotional connection, not necessarily with the person or the event, but just a thrill of discovery.
JO: Oh, absolutely! Yes. It’s really exciting when you find out something or you figure something out and most of what I do is not very like the Richard the Third Society. I don’t spend my time trying to identify individuals. I spend my time trying to use archaeological evidence, specifically human bones, to understand how people lived their lives in the past and that’s on a whole community level and when you figure something out about that and you begin to understand how past societies constructed themselves. it’s really fascinating and it’s absolutely exciting and I’m thrilled to do it.
BRAD: Do you see parallels between the genealogy process, the research process of genealogy, and anthropology. Do you see, or archaeology, do you see… You know we were talking before and you were talking about peeling back the layers and looking at the strata and where stuff is sitting, to me there seems to be a very strong parallel between archaeology and genealogy in that you’re looking for contextual evidence to relate certain records together, do you see those parallels?
JO: Yes, I think you’re right and, of course, the thing that everybody thinks about archaeology is that we’re looking for a specific thing and we’re not. It doesn’t matter to us whether we find a bit of a pot shard or a fantastic gold ornament, what we want is the information that enables us to get stuff out of those. So we want to use those to construct stories and I think that’s exactly what people do when they do genealogical research that they go back and they find the records but what they’re interested in is the stories they can then reconstruct from the combination of all those records.
BRAD: Yeah, I think that’s very true. What do you know about your family history?
JO: Well, I am one quarter Danish. So, my maternal grandmother’s family are all back in Denmark and my maternal grandmother came over to the UK in 1939 for a year and never got round to going back. On my maternal grandfather’s side we have a lot of relations in Leicestershire so that’s quite nice for me having got a job in Leicester. And then on my dad’s side I know a lot less. I know my great grandfather was on the railways and there was a lot of moving around and my other great grandfather was a teacher and there were several generations of teachers but I can’t go back quite so far on that side of the family.
BRAD: Okay. Being at the Fair has it perhaps peaked your interest a little bit in that, or are you still a – I wouldn’t say a non-believer – but perhaps a little bit sceptical about the whole pull of family history?
JO: No! I’m not sceptical at all and I’ve been meaning for ages to go … actually my uncle has very good records from my dad’s side of the family I just need to sit him down and go through it all with me. On my mum’s side of the family we have a lot of stuff going back a minimum of two hundred years and I know that and I know the photographs and I know who they are and what the stories are about them so that’s really fascinating, I love it.
BRAD: That’s great! Look, I do have one other question that I want to ask you, many of the people who are into family history are big, big fans of Time Team. As a professional archaeologist, how accurate is the portrayal of archaeology on Time Team, given that it’s a very condensed window and that it’s being made for television and not made for academic consumption, how accurate is it?
JO: Well of course most archaeological excavations don’t take place over three days but actually those Time Time excavations are carried out using the same methodologies as professional archaeologists would use and they are properly researched and they properly written up and published afterwards so in a sense they are very much exactly like every other archaeological dig just that it’s a bit more hectic in the middle.
BRAD: When you’re going about what you do I imagine there’s a lot of planning involved before you even stick a spade in the ground. Can you give us some sense of, what’s the time scale for a dig?
JO: It’s very, very variable. So for the kind of excavations I do are research excavations and we would have to start anything from up to a year in advance putting together grant applications to get funding for those. A lot of archaeological excavations in the UK are actually development led so there’s a principle in the UK that if you’re a developer and you want to build on a bit of land you have to have an archaeological assessment done beforehand and those assessments can often be done at pretty short notice. And the first stage of that is only a desk based exercise where you go and look at the historical records for that area and you work out what’s likely to be there and that might only take you a couple of weeks but then if it’s felt there’s significant archaeological potential then there’ll be potentially an evaluation where a small area is opened up. If that turns out to be interesting then you might have a open air excavation and that depends entirely on the scale of the project. So that might only be one house going up but you might only have someone on site for a few days. It might be that there’s an enormous quarry and that might have a program of excavational programmes that go on over decades. So it’s very variable.
BRAD: Yeah, I can see that. Dr Jo Appleby Thank you very much for your time.