“Nor had his childhood been easy; his teeth show distinctive lines known as dental enamel hypoplasia, indicating that his early years had been marked by a period of malnutrition or illness.” In order to further investigate Richard’s health, researchers in the Department of Archaeology produced a 3D scan of his skull. The model produced enables detailed features of the skull to be seen with much more ease than with the naked eye. This revealed a potentially violent episode in the priest’s past: a slight depression in the back of his skull shows evidence of an extremely well-healed blunt force trauma suffered many years before Richard’s death. None of the investigations shed light on the cause of his demise at a relatively young age, however there is one possibility that researchers are exploring. Dr Hugh Willmott from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, who has been working on the excavation site at Thornton Abbey since 2011, said: “2017 marks not only the 700th anniversary of Richard’s death, but also that of a catastrophic event that is now largely forgotten, but caused years of suffering for the whole of Europe: the Great Famine of 1315-1317.
“Triggered by a whole spring and summer of relentlessly heavy rain that caused widespread crop failures - which vastly depleted the availability of grain for humans and hay or straw for animals – this was a period of mass starvation. “Although not on the same scale as the Black Death, which devastated Europe from 1346-1353 and which also left its mark at Thornton Abbey, these hungry times struck rich and poor alike, killing millions across the continent.” He added: “By spring 1317, when Richard died, the crisis was at its peak and its events would undoubtedly have affected medieval hospitals like Thornton Abbey, and the priests who served there. “These institutions traditionally cared for the poor and hungry as well as the sick, so during the Great Famine sites like Thornton would have found themselves on the front line. Richard would have ministered to the starving, working in the face of desperately limited resources – and perhaps despite these efforts, he too succumbed to the natural disaster that was unfolding around him. “For now, such a narrative can only be a matter of speculation, but it does seem clear that – whatever caused his death – at the end of his days Richard was held in high regard, afforded an elaborate burial in the most prestigious part of the hospital chapel, in the very place he would have spent his final years working among the poor and dying.” This is the latest significant archaeological find at Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire. Last year a mass burial of bodies, known to be victims of the Black Death, was discovered at the hospital. A total of 48 skeletons, many of which were children, were found by the excavation team including PhD and undergraduate archaeology students.