Searching For Richard III
November 15, 2012

Scientists Searching For Richard III: ‘It’s Not Like CSI’

Alan McStravick for — Your Universe Online

The humpbacked Richard III was the last of the Yorkist kings of England. His overly ambitious rise to power, involving the assumed assassinations of his much younger cousins, and his hubris ultimately led to his downfall and death at the hands of Henry Tudor of Wales on Ambien Hill in 1485. His reign had lasted two years. He was 32 years of age.

While he was felled on the battlefield by his enemies, his body was not consecrated as much of the English royalty had been.  And so, a new archaeological dig in Leicester, England has members of the team wondering if they might have unearthed the skeleton of the tyrannical and power-hungry king.

Several testing methods are being employed to determine if these are, in fact, the regal bones. Among these methods are DNA testing, environmental sampling and radiocarbon dating. The team also has plans to do a facial reconstruction of the skeleton.

Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, of the University of Leicester's Archaeological Services, has explained the schedule for the scientific processes the skeleton is being subjected to.

But the team warns that we shouldn´t expect results immediately. Due to the complexity and excessive thoroughness of the testing methods, added to the necessity to locate specialized facilities for some of the more crucial stages, the results of the skeleton´s identity shouldn´t be expected for some time.

The exhumation was just the beginning. Members of the archaeological team then collected soil samples from the grave and from around where the skeleton was found. They state that this may help provide information about the burial ritual of the day along with showing information that will relate to the health and diet of the person.

Also aiding in determining health and diet and living conditions will be the samples of dental calculus the team collected from the skeleton. Dental calculus is the mineralized dental plaque which often builds up around the teeth.

The skeleton has already undergone a computed-tomography (CT) scan. In doing this, the scientists will be able to build up a 3-D digital image of the individual they have discovered.

The use of CT scans is not unprecedented in this field. The team hopes to be able to complete a reconstruction of the face in much the same way other scientists used CT scanning to create a visual representation of the 3,000 year-old King Tutankhamun.

A comparative DNA analysis of the skeleton will be done against the remains of Michael Ibsen. Ibsen is believed to be a descendant of Richard III´s sister, Anne of York, via the female line. Samples for this analysis will be extracted from the teeth and long bone of the skeleton. However, this process is not as simple as it may sound. Extraction is very meticulous when dealing with 500-year-old remains. In fact, if one of the researchers even breathes on the sample, it can become contaminated with modern DNA.

While Michael Ibsen´s modern DNA testing is being carried out at Leicester, extraction of material from the skeleton is taking place in concert with so called “ancient DNA” testing facilities. As they specialize in this field, it allows the sample to be tested safely, without risk of contamination.

In another aspect of the excavation and identification, a genealogical study is being performed in the hopes of verifying, beyond doubt, Micahel Ibsen´s connection to the Plantagenets. In this study, researchers are also hoping to find an additional line of descent.

In addition, two separate labs are performing radiocarbon dating on the skeleton. The use of radiocarbon dating should be able to indicate, with accuracy within 80 years, of when the individual died.

While all of the specialized testing is occurring in labs and libraries, the skeleton has undergone a thorough cleaning. Researchers are now examining the skeleton in deep detail. This examination is being done with the hopes they can determine the individual´s age, build and nature of its spinal condition.

The primary research team has brought in experts in medieval battle and weaponry for this stage. This is because these experts should be able to explain what kinds of instruments might have caused specific damage to the skeleton in battle. They are looking at areas of the skeleton that underwent trauma, including the injury to the skull. Both teams are being aided by forensic pathologists at the University´s East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit. The pathologists are involved as they will help to determine the exact cause of death for the individual.

Lead archaeologist Buckley said, "We are looking at many different lines of enquiry, the evidence from which all add up to give us more assurance about the identity of the individual. As well as the DNA testing, we have to take in all of the other pieces of evidence which tell us about the person's lifestyle — including his health and where he grew up.

"There are many specialists involved in the process, and so we have to coordinate all of the tests so the analysis is done in a specific order.

"The ancient DNA testing in particular takes time and we need to work in partnership with specialist facilities. It is not like in CSI, where DNA testing can be done almost immediately, anywhere — we are reliant on the specialist process and facilities to successfully extract ancient DNA."

The University of Leicester, in association with Leicester City Council and the Richard III Society, is leading the Search for Richard III.

While many on the archaeological team are hopeful that they have located the humpbacked king, the University has clearly stated that they are not purporting to have actually found Richard III. Instead, they cautiously state the skeleton found has characteristics that warrant the further detailed examination. At this point, according to the University, the search for Richard III has progressed from its archaeological phase to a laboratory phase.

The University has added that the outcomes of its investigations are expected early next year - and that possible outcomes are:

  • The scientific research suggests it is Richard III
  • The scientific research suggests it is not Richard III
  • The scientific research is inconclusive and therefore conclusions may be drawn from the evidence available.

The Search for Richard III is also the subject of a Channel 4 documentary being made by Darlow Smithson.