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More wine, meat and exotic birds: What Richard III’s bones reveal about what he ate

Richard III skull

The remains of Richard III have given researchers the ability to learn a vast amount about the life of the medieval English monarch. The latest study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, has uncovered fascinating new details about what his diet was and where he lived.

Richard III skull

This research will also be presented in a documentary, Richard III: The New Evidence, that airs on British television’s Channel 4 on Sunday, August 17th. Dr Angela Lamb and Professor Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey, who led study, performed an isotope analysis on two bones – a femur and a rib – and teeth of King Richard. All of these remains develop and rebuild at different stages of life, allowing researchers to gain details about the geographical location, pollution and diet of the individual.

The teeth, which form in childhood, confirmed that Richard had moved from Fotheringay Castle in eastern England by the time he was seven. The data suggest that during this time he was in an area of higher rainfall, older rocks and with a changed diet relative to his place of birth in Northamptonshire. By examining the femur, which represents an average of the 15 years before death, researchers show that Richard moved back to eastern England as an adolescent or young adult, and had a diet that matched the highest aristocracy.

The third location, the rib, renews itself relatively quickly, so it only represents between 2 and 5 years of life before death. Data from the isotopes in this bone indicate the greatest change in diet. Although an alteration in the chemistry between the femur and the rib of Richard III could indicate relocation, historical records show that Richard did not move from the east of England in the 2 years prior to his death when he was King. As such, this chemical change is more likely to represent a change in diet relating to his period as King. The difference suggests an increase in consumption of freshwater fish and birds, which were popular additions to royal banquets at the time and included birds such as swan, crane, heron and egret. In addition, the bone chemistry suggests he was drinking about a bottle of wine a day. His overall daily alcohol consumption is likely to have been two to three litres.

Richard Buckley from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services and lead archaeologist in the Richard III dig, said: “This cutting edge research has provided a unique opportunity to shed new light on the diet and environment of a major historical figure –Richard III. It is very rare indeed in archaeology to be able to identify a named individual with precise dates and a documented life.

“This has enabled the stable-isotope analysis to show how his environment changed at different times in his life and, perhaps most significantly, identified marked changes in his diet when he became king in 1483. “

Dominic Smee for Richard III documentaryThe documentary airing this weekend will also be offers viewers some interesting new observations about Richard III’s life. The filmmakers were aided by a young British man who has precisely the same form of scoliosis as Richard III and who has collaborated with the scientists on a series of unique tests to find out to what extent Richard’s scoliosis would have affected his ability as a warrior. Twenty-seven year-old Dominic Smee, whose spine, with its 75 degree curve is deemed ‘virtually identical’ by the experts to Richard III’s, worked together with a team of historians and scientists to make a series of discoveries:

  • When Richard was first unearthed, the archaeological team commented on Richard’s lightly built, “gracile” skeleton. He did not seem to have the build of a seasoned warrior. However, Dominic, with his similar back condition and light frame, demonstrates that Richard III would have had no problem wielding medieval longswords, lances, halberds and axes.
  • Further tests conducted with Dominic shows that body armour could have been made to fit his spinal deformity and that it actually provided essential support in bolstering and strengthening his upper body.
  • Richard III would have had a serious stamina problem according to physiotherapist Claire Small, an expert on spinal pathologies who has worked with paralympians. The twisting of Dominic’s spine affects the shape of the rib-cage and limits his ability to breathe rapidly and heavily when taking exercise – it is likely Richard would have been affected in much the same way

Click here to watch an interview with Dominic Smee

The article “Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III” by Angela L. Lamb, Jane E. Evans, Richard Buckley, Jo Appleby, appears in the Journal of Archaeological Science, while the documentary ‘Richard III: The New Evidence’ airs at 9:00 pm on August 17th, on Channel 4 in Great Britain.

Click here to learn more about Richard III

Sources: British Geological Survey, University of Leicester, Channel 4



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