The DNA and scientific testing to confirm whether or not the remains of an individual discovered in Leicester is that of England’s King Richard III will be known early in the new year, according to officials from the University of Leicester.
DNA testing, environmental sampling and radiocarbon dating are some of the tests being undertaken to determine whether the skeleton found in Leicester was once Richard III – and there are also plans to do a facial reconstruction.
Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, of the University of Leicester’s Archaeological Services, explains “We are looking at many different lines of enquiry, the evidence from which all add up to give us more assurance about the identity of the individual. As well as the DNA testing, we have to take in all of the other pieces of evidence which tell us about the person’s lifestyle – including his health and where he grew up.
“There are many specialists involved in the process, and so we have to coordinate all of the tests so the analysis is done in a specific order. The ancient DNA testing in particular takes time and we need to work in partnership with specialist facilities. It is not like in CSI, where DNA testing can be done almost immediately, anywhere – we are reliant on the specialist process and facilities to successfully extract ancient DNA.”
The scientific team is using samples of DNA taken from the teeth and a long bone and are comparing them with that of Michael Ibsen, believed to be a descendant of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York via the female line. But extracting the DNA from these samples is not straightforward, as even the act of breathing on 500-year-old remains can cause the sample to be contaminated with modern DNA.
A separate genealogical study is being undertaken to verify Michael Ibsen’s connection to the Plantagenets and researchers also hope to identify a second line of descent. The skeleton is also being radiocarbon dated by two separate labs, which should indicate – to within 80 years – the date the individual died.
The skeleton has now been cleaned, and is currently being examined in detail in an attempt to ascertain the individual’s age, build and the nature of its spinal condition. Particular attention will be paid to the trauma to the skeleton which may have been incurred in battle – including the injury to the skull. Specialists in medieval battles and weaponry are advising the team on the kinds of instruments that may have caused the damage.
Samples of dental calculus – mineralised dental plaque, which sometimes builds up around teeth – will be taken from the skeleton to help the scientists find out more about the person’s diet, health and living conditions.
The skeleton has been given a computed-tomography (CT) scan which will allow scientists to build up a 3-D digital image of the individual. From here, they hope to reconstruct the individual’s face, in a similar way to the images created of King Tutankhamun following CT scans of the 3,000-year-old mummy.
If the remains found by the University of Leicester are Richard III’s, it would rewrite history by bringing closure to the fate of the mysterious king. In addition, by observing that Richard’s deformity may have been a result of scoliosis, the idea of him being a ‘hunchback’ will fade away.
University of Leicester historians Professor Norman Housley and Dr Andrew Hopper add that this discovery could change much of what we know about the English ruler. They said, “Little reliable contemporary evidence has survived for the nature of his kingship because his reign proved so short and because his Tudor successors legitimised themselves by encouraging literary works (of which Shakespeare was not the first) that depicted him as a caricature tyrant. So, if it proves possible to nail the Tudor slander of the ‘hunchback king’ with medical evidence of severe scoliosis rather than kyphosis, it will be gilt on the gingerbread because efforts during the last three centuries to restore his reputation have never fully succeeded in undermining this enduring popular image.
“The discovery of the body will be significant because of what is already being indicated about the cause of death. The apparent evidence of battle injuries will stimulate debate about exactly how Richard was killed at Bosworth, and beyond that, about close combat in medieval battles. This is fitting because Richard polarised opinion during his life and from beyond the grave; his reliance on a northern regional powerbase to maintain his rule fostered a north-south divide in allegiance partially reflected in the historiography since.”
Philippa Langley, who, as part of the Richard III Society, help organized the archaeological project, adds “The dig in Leicester is exploding many of the myths that surround King Richard. It is also questioning the work of many of our illustrious writers. It seems that despite Thomas More, Richard did not have a withered arm, that despite William Shakespeare, Richard did not have a hunchback. And despite John Speede, Richard’s remains were not exhumed and taken to the river Soar.
“If the remains are identified as being those of King Richard these are just some of the myths that have already been busted. And, having watched the exhumation, I believe there may be more myths to follow.”
Source: University of Leicester