Ending months of speculation, a team of scientists at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom has concluded "beyond reasonable doubt" that human remains found in a parking lot in the city last year are those of Richard III, who reigned over England from 1483 until his death in 1485. Archaeologist Richard Buckley announced the findings at a press conference in Leicester this morning. The scientists on the panel hugged, and attending journalists whooped and clapped after the announcement.
Although local legend had it that the monarch's bones had been tipped into the river, some scientists were convinced he was still buried at a Franciscan monastery in Leicester. That monastery had been demolished in the 16th century, however, and researchers looking for Richard III found his remains below a modern-day parking lot last summer. Within days of discovering the church's walls, archaeologists dug up a skeleton in a small grave. A team of scientists then set to work trying to prove whether these were indeed Richard III's remains.
Close examination of the skeleton yielded some clues. It showed the individual was male, in his late 20s to late 30s, and had a feminine build, all of which squared with historical sources, osteoarchaeologist Jo Appleby of the University of Leicester said at the press conference. Richard III died at age 32 at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The battle ended the bloody civil war known as the Wars of the Roses as well as the Plantagenet line of kings, and it established the House of Tudor as the new English dynasty.
The fighting left its marks on the body. The skeleton sports 10 wounds, eight on the skull and two on the rest of the body. Two of the wounds were particularly severe, a large hole at the back of the skull where a halberdlike weapon sliced off part of the head and a smaller trauma on the base of the skull caused by a blade that penetrated the skull. "Both of these injuries would have caused almost instant loss of consciousness, and death would have followed quickly afterwards," Appleby said. Other wounds are probably the result of postmortem mutilation.
To identify the skeleton, scientists also extracted DNA from the teeth and a thigh bone and compared it to DNA from two living relatives of the king. The DNA in mitochondria—small, energy-producing structures in a cell—is passed on only from the mother. Michael Ibsen, a furniture maker from Canada, had already been identified as a direct descendant through the maternal line of Anne of York, Richard's sister. The researchers at the University of Leicester found another descendant from an all-female line who asked to remain anonymous but donated DNA samples as well. A comparison of mitochondrial DNA from the two living relatives with that extracted from the skeleton produced a match, said geneticist Turi King of the University of Leicester at the press conference. "The results of the archaeological and osteological analysis, combined with the genealogical and genetic evidence, make for a strong and compelling case that these are indeed the remains of Richard III," she said.
It's "a spectacular find and a great bit of research," battle archaeologist Tony Pollard of the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom tells ScienceNOW. Finding the body of a king killed in battle is unique, he says; Richard III was the last English monarch to die in battle. "We need to forget ideas of heavily choreographed warfare in the middle ages. It was much more brutal than we thought." The attention that the findings are generating is good for archaeology, he says. "It demonstrates there are still exciting things to learn."
But other scientists criticize the university for presenting short results that have not gone through peer review. Ross Barnett, an expert on ancient DNA at the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, says the evidence presented on DNA was not convincing. "There may be more data. There probably is. But what was presented of the DNA work falls far short," he writes in an e-mail. "I think that sexy research like this is definitely deserving of a press conference, but my preference would have been for this to have occurred in tandem with publication of a peer-reviewed paper so that interested professionals and amateurs alike could instantly check up on what was being reported."
Richard III still labors under a bad reputation, in large part because of his portrayal as a villain in Shakespeare's play of the same name. But historians have argued that that depiction was Tudor propaganda. The fact that the skeleton showed no signs of the "withered arm" mentioned by Shakespeare is proof to some that much of the story surrounding Richard III's character is also fiction. Another contentious issue—what should happen with the king's remains—seems to have been settled, however. Richard III will be reinterred at Leicester Cathedral probably early next year, the mayor of Leicester said.