Leicester (G-B): Human remains discovered in search for King Richard III



Professor Lin Foxhall, Head of the School of Archaeology & Ancient History at the University of Leicester

As academics we deal in factual data, and today we are presenting the archaeological facts, as we see them at present. Of course much research and further investigation remains to be done before we can be sure of the identification of this individual, and we may never be entirely certain. But, on the basis of the data we have so far – the archaeological context and the osteological (skeletal) evidence, we have a man with what appear to be battle injuries who suffered from severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine), respectfully but modestly buried in a place of honour in the friary church. This appears to be consistent with some of the meagre textual evidence about Richard III from contemporary historical sources, but does not fit the exaggerated picture painted by later, Tudor sources which portrayed him as a wicked hunchback.

There was a long history from Greco-Roman times onward of associating disability with negative character traits, a belief that we do not share today, though it partially explains the later Tudor representation of Richard III. The individual we have discovered was plainly strong and active despite his disability, indeed it seems likely that he died in battle. If this person does indeed turn out to be King Richard III there is the potential for a new and different understanding of the fate of the last of the Plantagenet kings.

I would like to highlight the meticulous work of the ULAS and the scientific team, and to congratulate them on a brilliantly executed archaeological project. This work would not have been possible without the support of the University of Leicester, the Leicester City Council and the determination and support of the Richard III Society.

We now have the potential for a new understanding of the fate of the last of the Plantagenet kings on the basis of sound archaeological and scientific evidence. This discovery, shedding new light on a controversial period of British history, is of global importance.

Dr Turi King, leading the DNA analysis and academic in the University's Department of Genetics

In terms of what happens next, our plan has been to extract DNA from the skeletal material and compare the DNA with a known living relative of Richard III and see if it matches. Discussions are underway to enable this. In reality this will be a long process.

In the first instance we will be hoping that we can extract mitochondrial DNA of sufficient quality to be able to sequence it. Mitochondrial DNA is the piece of DNA of choice for this particular project for two reasons. Mitochondrial DNA is found in hundreds to thousands of copies in our cells so it's mitochondrial DNA that is the easiest to retrieve from ancient material. Whether we will be able to retrieve any DNA depends on the conditions of the burial - cold and dry is best for DNA preservation.

Mitochondrial DNA is passed down through the female line (in the ovum). As it's being copied to be passed down through the generations, little typos happen in the DNA sequence such that not everyone has the same mtDNA type. Siblings will all have the same mtDNA type that their mother gave them, which is the mtDNA that her mother gave her. Daughters will pass on their mtDNA type but sons will not. This means that if we have any female-line relatives we can test them to see if they match one another. Fortunately, we have this in the form of Michael Ibsen whose genealogy –it has been claimed -makes him the 17th great grand-nephew of Richard III. We hope to use the latest technologies to sequence the DNA from these skeletal remains and compare them with those of Michael Ibsen to see if the results are consistent with them being related.

Needless to say this is an extremely exciting project to be involved with and I'm very hopeful that we can bring DNA evidence to bear on the question as to whether or not this indeed Richard III.

Dr Jo Appleby, Lecturer in Human Bioarchaeology in the University's School of Archaeology and Ancient History

It was evident during the process of excavation that the skeleton exhibited several pathological features. The skull had a minimum of two injuries. The first was a small penetrating wound to the top of the head that had dislodged two small flaps of bone on the skull interior. The second was a much larger wound to the occipital bone (or base of the skull): a slice had been cut off the skull at the side and back. This is consistent with a bladed implement of some sort, but further laboratory-based analysis of the bones once clean will be needed to fully understand the nature of this injury. It should be noted that this did not cut through the neck and that the skull was still in its correct anatomical position when excavated. In addition to the injuries to the skull, there was evidence of an abnormality of the spinal column. This took the form of scoliosis, or a major sideways 'kink' in the area of the ribcage. A small piece of iron (as yet unidentified) was recovered behind and between two vertebrae towards the top of the ribcage.

The skeleton itself was mostly complete, although the feet had been destroyed at an unknown point in the past. The condition of the bone is moderately good. From the position of the bones on excavation it is possible to see that the body has not been moved, and it appears that it was originally buried in a shroud, although no physical traces of this remain.

Of course, we don't know that we've found Richard: he is not the only individual in history to have had scoliosis and not the only medieval man to have received head injuries. We won't be able to be certain until DNA analysis has been carried out, and perhaps not even then. What we do know is that we have excavated the skeleton of a man who bears a close resemblance to the historical accounts that we have been given of Richard and this is hugely exciting.

Dr Sarah Knight and Dr Mary Ann Lund, scholars of C16 & C17 English literature and academic in the University's School of English

The Tudor historians Thomas More, Polydore Vergil, Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed wrote highly critical accounts of Richard III: for More, he was 'ill fetured of limmes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher then his right', and Holinshed also mentions that he was 'of a readie, pregnant, and quicke wit'. Shakespeare wove these sources into his charismatic anti-hero who plots, seduces and murders his way to the crown, boasting that 'I am determined to prove a villain'. This find could make us re-assess the Richard III bequeathed to us by Tudor historians and dramatists and look again at their narratives in the light of the material remains.


View a video clip on the project here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRY0CLRCjM8