Science behind the story of Richard’s remains

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III, in Leicester Cathedral
The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III, in Leicester Cathedral
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The discovery of the remains of Richard III made headlines around the world. Now a new book sheds light on the archaeology involved. Chris Bond reports.

WHEN archaeologists discovered a skeleton under a council car park in Leicester in September 2012, it caused a flurry of interest not only here, but around the world.

What made this particular skeleton special, and what caused all the fuss, was who it might belong to. A team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester were searching for the grave of Richard III and the remains they unearthed had spinal abnormalities and a “cleaved-in skull”, suggesting it could be the lost king killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

The bones were then tested for DNA against descendants of Richard’s family and in February the following year lead archaeologist Richard Buckley told a packed press conference: “Beyond reasonable doubt it’s Richard.”

However, this was far from the end of the story. Bosworth may have been the final battle the Yorkist king faced in life, but the battle over his final resting place had only just begun.

The story of Richard, the last English monarch to die on the battlefield, 
has fascinated people for centuries and the discovery of his royal bones was akin to that of the tomb of Tutankhamun, with one group calling for him to be laid to rest at Leicester Cathedral and another, including some of his distant relatives, saying 
his remains should be reinterred in York Minster.

But while the argument looks set to continue for a little while longer at least, it is just the latest chapter in a remarkable story. “The level of interest both here and abroad and the feelings it has stirred up in Leicester and York shows that people really do care about this,” says archaeologist and journalist Mike Pitts.

“There’s lots of science and forensic work, there’s history, poetry and Shakespeare. It’s an extraordinary story and people have followed all the twists and turns.”

Pitts is editor of Britain’s leading archaeological magazine, British Archaeology, and has written a new book – Digging For Richard III: How Archaeology Found The King – which sheds light on how archaeologists were able to prove they had found the last medieval king.

“The DNA on its own doesn’t show the skeleton to be that of Richard III, but it’s the right DNA and it’s a rare type,” says Pitts.

Then there’s the location, Richard was buried in Greyfriars, which fits in with the historical evidence, and the body itself. “It’s male, it appears to be the right age and the right physique, in that it fits the description, and there are the wounds, so the pathology fits well. When you add all this together it’s far too much just to be coincidence.”

All the studies, including analysis of anatomy, DNA, high-resolution scanning and a digital facial reconstruction, pointed to one thing – that this was indeed Richard III, one of England’s most controversial monarchs.

But as well as putting Richard back in the spotlight, Pitts hopes the project highlights the important role archaeology has to play in helping us to understand our history and heritage.

“The archaeology and science involved was superb. It was a model of how excavation and scientific analysis should be done and it stands as a showcase for archaeology to a huge audience, many of whom will have otherwise had little engagement with it. One of the things I hope that comes out of this is that people realise the quality of British archaeology because it is truly world-leading.”

He hopes it will also inspire a new generation of archaeologists. “People can learn how archaeology works, what it can and cannot do. They can see that the best of British archaeology leads the world. Hopefully some will be inspired to seek out other projects they can take part in, to visit museums or read about archaeology, or even to study archaeology at university.”

There’s no doubt that Richard III is one of our most famous, some might say infamous, monarchs. But there’s no doubt, either, that this is down in no small measure to a certain playwright, whose withering portrait of him as a hunchback villain with an eye for a memorable soliloquy continues to fascinate people.

“A big part in all this is Shakespeare,” admits Pitts. Richard III is one of his most performed plays and older generations will remember seeing Laurence Olivier in the role, while both Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch, stars of the BBC’s hit series Sherlock, are taking on the part in forthcoming productions.

“Each year there are new productions so the story is constantly being reworked and reimagined. Shakespeare’s character isn’t a psycho, he’s actually very clever and funny. We don’t know to what extent Shakespeare’s character reflects what the real king was like, but it doesn’t really matter because Shakespeare’s king is constantly being reborn.”

Pitts says it’s impossible to know what Richard was actually like. “If you go back to the 15th Century there was obviously no media footage of him and no one ever interviewed him, so we don’t have the evidence to know what kind of person he was.”

It’s fair to say, though, that history hasn’t been particularly kind to him. While the Richard III Society works to defend the king’s reputation, many historians believe Richard was responsible for the murder of his young nephews, the “princes in the tower.”

It’s quite possible that he did give the orders for their deaths, but as Pitts points out he lived in much more violent times. “He lived in an age when lives were often brutally cut short. He was surrounded by death from an early age and a lot of his relatives were either executed, murdered, or killed in battle. His childhood would have traumatised most of us living today.”

When it comes to the question of where Richard’s final resting place ought to be, Pitts’s view won’t be popular with Yorkists. “There’s no evidence that shows where he wanted to be buried and it seems appropriate to me that in keeping with tradition and convention he should be buried in the nearest consecrated ground, and that’s Leicester Cathedral.”

He prefers instead to focus on what the archaeological project itself achieved. “Looking for the grave of a known person rather than, say, complete towns, is not something archaeologists normally do. But the dig showed that sometimes such things can succeed.”

It also showed how amateurs and professionals can work together successfully, even if their aims aren’t exactly the same. In this case, to begin with at least, the Richard III Society wanted to find the king’s grave while the archaeologists wanted to learn about the friary. “It reminds archaeologists that what they are interested in may not be what excites the public.”

It’s now common for professionals to help amateurs set up projects and work alongside them and Pitts points out that the excavation could not have succeeded without several people joining together.

“The important studies were conducted by many scientists working in their own distinctive specialist fields. Yet what we know about Richard III, and the fact that we do know the skeleton is his, depends on all those different studies coming together. This is an important message, that modern science is a co-operative, sharing effort, in which the whole is bigger than the parts,” he says.

“What archaeology also does is it makes us think about the past and that has to be a good thing.”

• Digging For Richard III – How Archaeology Found The King, published by Thames & Hudson, is out on April 28, priced £18.95.