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Space Technology Used To Analyze 16-Century Tombs

January 26, 2011

Space science technology used to analyze moon rock is going to be applied to fragments of 16th-century tombs.

Scientists from the Space Research Center in Leicester are working with an art historian in a three-year project in the hopes of shedding new light on our understanding of the Tudor Reformation.

The tombs are close to the family seat of the Howards, which is the extremely wealthy and powerful Dukes of Norfolk. 

However, the tombs were originally sited 40 miles away at Thetford Priory, a traditional resting place of the Howards until Henry VIII had it dissolved in 1539. 

They were moved and reassembled in the 1540s while the third duke languished in the Tower of London.  However, the reassembly process was flawed, so different materials were used.

Leicester University art historian Dr. Philip Lindley was called in to investigate the fragments of the original tombs.  He said that he was immediately fascinated.

“We’re trying to relate what happened to the monuments to what happened to the number one power family of the day,” he says.

Lindley told The Guardian that he would like to be able to take the tombs apart and investigate how they were reassembled.

“Obviously I can’t do that,” he says. “But I was talking about it to scientists at the Space Research Center who proposed that we scan them, take them apart virtually and then put them back together again to look as the Howards originally intended. It’s like doing a jig-saw puzzle on screen with all the pieces mixed up.”

Dr. Lisa Ford of the Yale Center for British Art is investigating the Earl of Surrey’s tomb, who was the Duke’s brother-in-law.

“I was talking to Lisa over a coffee when I was at Yale,” Lindley told The Guardian. “By an astonishing coincidence, we discovered that we were both absorbed by tombs in the same small corner of England.”

Historian Dr. Steven Gunn is another key member of the research team.  His role in the research is to provide historical context for the findings.

“The Howards are central to our understanding of the artistic development of 16th-century England,” he told The Guardian. “We know that their tombs were moved from Thetford during the third duke’s imprisonment, and we now have what seem to be the missing pieces. But was it a case of taking them to Framlingham because they’d already been destroyed, or did they have an Ikea-type tomb kit ready to be put together at Framlingham when Thetford was dissolved?”

Lindley has other questions: “Why were parts of the monuments left at Thetford? Had the third duke’s and Fitzroy’s tombs been dismantled and taken to Framlingham while the duke was in prison? Or are the excavated fragments the remains of the third tomb [Surrey's]?”

He hopes that the virtual technology will help the research team to provide some answers.

The project is being funded by Arts and Humanities and Engineering and Physical Sciences.

“My role,” says freelance interdisciplinary scientist Dr Adair Richards, “is to ensure that a project funded by public money serves the public. One way we’re going to do this is to work with English Heritage to create a learning toolkit to allow teachers to present Tudor history in a new way, with a focus on the research process rather than just the results.”

Image Caption: Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk.

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