Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Investigations into a Skeleton

When Leicester University began its excavations in a city car park last September, they rated their chances of finding the bones of Richard III at less than one percent. Yes, they knew they were excavating in the area where the Greyfriars friary once stood, and yes, there are contemporary records saying that the king, killed at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, had been buried in the chancel of the Greyfriars church, but the search for his bones was akin to the cliché of the needle in the haystack.

However, on the very first day, by an amazing stroke of luck, the first trench opened in the car park revealed a human skeleton. As one of the archaeologists said later, “If we’d decided to dig the trench just fifty centimetres either way, we would have missed it completely."

Of course, this skeleton could have been anyone, but …

Firstly, it was revealed that the skeleton showed signs of battle injuries, especially to the head.

Secondly, the spine was twisted by scoliosis – not the notorious humpback of Shakespeare’s play, but enough to give him one shoulder higher than the other, as reported in contemporary chronicles.

Thirdly, several more trenches uncovered medieval walls, and showed that the area where the bones had been found would have been in the friary church.

For many of us, this evidence was enough to be 99% sure that the bones were those of Richard III. The professional archaeologists and historians, however, were not willing to commit themselves at this stage.

Four months of intensive investigations followed – examination of the bones for injuries and disease, carbon-dating tests, and also DNA analysis.

Examination of the bones showed several injuries, including two severe blows to the head, either of which would have proved fatal. The bones also showed that he had scoliosis, not from birth but from when he was about ten or eleven. The experts said the skeleton revealed a high protein diet of meat and fish, evidence of a rich lifestyle at a time when the ‘ordinary people’ lived mainly on vegetables.

Carbon-dating showed that the bones were from a man who died between 1455 and 1540 (the battle of Bosworth was 1485)


The most conclusive evidence came from DNA analysis. Amazingly, a direct link had been found, via the female line, from Richard’s sister Anne to a Canadian cabinet-maker, now living in London. He agreed to be tested for Mitochondrial DNA, and this was then compared with the DNA from the bones.

It was an exact match, which was why the Leicester University archaeologists were able to announce, at the beginning of February, that ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ the bones were those of Richard III.

The facial reconstruction, based on CT scans of the skull, shows a remarkable similarity to the most famous portrait of the king.

As soon as the announcement had been made, discussions broke out about where Richard III should be buried. Under the terms of the exhumation licence, the decision over the location of the king's reburial rested with the University of Leicester, and so it was announced that he would be buried in Leicester Cathedral, as the nearest 'consecrated place' to where his bones were found. There are those who maintain he should be buried in Westminster Abbey but evidently the Queen, for whatever reason, has ruled out a royal reburial for him there.

An even stronger argument has been made for his reburial in York Minster since it seems this is where he intended to be buried. Yorkshire was his childhood, and some say his spiritual, home, and York never wavered in its loyalty to Richard. On the day after the battle of Bosworth, the York City Council recorded its reaction to the news: King Richard, late mercifully reigning over us, was through great treason . . . piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city.

Having said that, the only statue of Richard III is in the city of Leicester, not in York!


21 comments:

  1. I saw the recognition pictures, pretty amazing!

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  2. It's truly amazing what technology can do these days.

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  3. This was fascinating. I love a good CSI-ish story. My brother in law was a latent identification expert, and told remarkable stories, and showed even more gruesome pictures. Yours stacked up with his fabulously.

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  4. I remember when this was in the news. Quite amazing and extraordinary. Didn't some psychic woman writer lead the archaeologists there to the parking lot? Seems to me I remember something about that.

    DNA testing is so incredible these days how it provides concrete evidence.

    Thanks for another fascinating post, Paula.

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  5. As you all say, it is an amazing discovery - and incredible what modern technology can tell us about the past.

    Cathy, I don't think was psychic per se, and they already knew the friary was partly below the car park, but evidently she got some weird sensation when she was standing there.

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  6. Fascinating and truly a miracle that they even found him!

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  7. Technology is amazing! Fascinating post.

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  8. That is so amazing. Wonderful that they had the direct descendant DNA to make the match. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

    Mary Montague Sikes

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  9. This was such an amazing discovery. Interesting post!

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  10. The entire process is fascinating.

    http://joycelansky.blogspot.com

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  11. A beautifully written snapshot of it, Paula!Nancy at Welcome to she said, he said

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  12. Very interesting post. I like.
    Saludos.

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  13. The whole thing is amazing really - from finding the skeleton to proving it really was Richard III.

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  14. The direct descendant thing amazes me. It is sad that the grave was under a car park.

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  15. Weirder things have happened, Susan, and it's amazing his skeleton wasn't disturbed by later (Victorian) building on the site, long before the car park.

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  16. Utterly fascinating and amazing!!! I absolutely loved reading about this. I am surprised that the Queen did not want him buried with other royalty considering, but maybe that would have proved costly to the crown. Fascinating tale Paula. Loved it!

    Kathy
    http://gigglingtruckerswife.blogspot.com

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  17. That is really, really cool. Richard would no doubt disagree, but really, really cool.

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  18. Isn't it amazing that DNA can solve mysteries hundreds of years later. A fascinating read. Loved it.

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  19. What a great story. It's amazing when something successful like that happens. Still people got to find something to argue about! Writer’s Mark

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  20. My husband has been following this story ever since it hit the news and he keeps me updated. It really is amazing the stroke of luck they had to find him!

    Cheers, Jenn

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  21. I would have liked Richard to be in York. Leicester is such an odd place to my way of thinking. I did not know there was a statue of him in Leicester. York "get your act together NOW!"

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