February 4, 2013

In Focus: No more winter of discontent for Richard III

Scientists say remains are those of the king who died in battle, and fans hope to recast his reputation.

The Associated Press

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Jo Appleby, a lecturer in human bioarchaeology at the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History, says tests have established "beyond reasonable doubt" the long lost remains of England's King Richard III, missing for 500 years.

AP

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This is the earliest surviving portrait of Richard III, whose fans hope to restore the reputation of the 15th-century monarch.

AP

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The church was closed and dismantled after King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1538, and its location eventually was forgotten by most local residents.

There were tales that the king's bones had been dug up and thrown in a nearby river in the 16th century.

Then last year, a team led by University of Leicester archaeologist Richard Buckley identified a possible location of the grave through map regression analysis, starting with a current map of the general area of the former church and analyzing earlier maps to discover what had changed and not changed. Ground-penetrating radar was used to find the best places to start digging.

The team began excavating in a parking lot last August. Within a week they had located thick walls and the remains of tiled floors. Soon after, they found human remains -- the skeleton of an adult male who appeared to have died in battle.

He had been buried unceremoniously, with no coffin or shroud -- plausible for a despised and defeated enemy.

Increasingly excited, the researchers set out to conduct a battery of scientific tests, including radiocarbon dating to determine the skeleton's age, to see whether, against the odds, they really had found the king.

They found the skeleton belonged to a man in his late 20s to late 30s who died between 1455 and 1540. Richard was 32 when he died in 1485.

CASE STRENGTHENED BY BONES

Archaeological bone specialist Jo Appleby, a lecturer in human bioarchaeology at Leicester, said study of the bones provided "a highly convincing case for identification of Richard III."

Appleby said the 10 injuries to the body were inflicted by weapons such as swords, daggers and halberds and were consistent with accounts of Richard being struck down in battle -- his helmet knocked from his head -- before his body was stripped naked and flung over the back of a horse in disgrace.

Appleby said two of the blows to the head could have been fatal. Other scars, including a knife wound to the buttock, bore the hallmarks of "humiliation injuries" inflicted after death.

The remains also displayed signs of scoliosis, a form of spinal curvature, consistent with contemporary accounts of Richard's appearance, although not the withered arm Shakespeare describes.

DNA from the skeleton matched a sample taken from Michael Ibsen, a distant living relative of Richard's sister. The project's lead geneticist, Turi King, said Ibsen, a Canadian carpenter living in London, shares with the skeleton a rare strain of mitochondrial DNA. The same DNA group also matches a second living descendant, who wants to remain anonymous.

King said that between 1 percent and 2 percent of the population belongs to this genetic sub-group, so the DNA evidence is not definitive proof in itself of the skeleton's identity. But combined with the archaeological evidence, it left little doubt the skeleton belonged to Richard.

Ibsen, a 17th great-grand-nephew of Richard's older sister, said he was "stunned" by the discovery.

"It's difficult to digest," he said.

FINDINGS RELEASED IN HASTE?

Some scientists felt qualms about the haste with which the Leicester team announced its results. The findings have not been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, although the university said they soon would be.

"It's a bizarre way of going about things," said Mark Horton, a professor of archaeology at the University of Bristol -- although he said "overwhelming circumstantial evidence" identified the skeleton as Richard's.

Archaeologist Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology magazine, also said he found the evidence persuasive.

"I don't think there is any question. It is Richard III," said Pitts, who was not affiliated with the research team.

The discovery is a boon for the city of Leicester, which has bought a building next to the parking lot to serve as a visitor center and museum.

On Monday, the king's skeleton lay in a glass box in a meeting room within the university library.

It was a browned, fragile-looking thing, its skull pocked with injuries, missing its feet -- which scientists say were disturbed sometime after burial -- and with a pronounced s-shape to the spine.

Soon the remains will be moved to an undisclosed secure location, and next year Richard will, at last, get a king's burial, interred with pomp and ceremony in Leicester Cathedral.

It is a day Langley, of the Richard III Society, has dreamed of seeing.

"We have searched for him, we have found him -- it is now time to honor him," she said.

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Additional Photos

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Jo Appleby stands in front of a picture of the skeleton that shows the spinal curvature of scoliosis.

The Associated Press

  


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