Identity verified by DNA
BY EUGENE M. MCCARTHY — Dec. 7, 2013 — The remains of one of Shakespeare's most unsavory villains have been found beneath an English parking lot. The skeleton of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England were discovered recently under a in Leicester, UK after historical investigations revealed the likely locale of the grave site.
According to Shakespeare, Richard cheerfully (and wittily) murdered anyone who made the mistake of standing between him and power. This is the same monarch who in the end, while trying to escape his enemies, famously offered his kingdom for a horse. He died more than 500 years ago and his burial site has long been unknown. The identity of the skeleton, however, has now been confirmed by a variety of means, including radiocarbon dating, DNA, and bone analysis.
The bones show that his enemies, once they caught him, treated him with far less respect than is ordinarily accorded kings. The grave, discovered in the Leicester's town center was hastily dug — it was too short for the body — and there was neither shroud nor coffin. The body was simply dumped into an undersized hole.
DNA from the skeleton matches two living individuals, both of whom genealogists have verified as descendants of Richard III's older sister, Anne of York, the Duchess of Exeter (1439-1476).
Radiocarbon dating reveals that the person to whom the bones in the grave belonged died either in the second half of the 15th, or in the early 16th, century, which is consistent with the known date of Richard's death (1485).
The anatomical evidence is also convincing. The skeleton belonged to a man who in life had an unusually slender, almost feminine, build, as well as severe scoliosis — curvature of the spine — possibly with one shoulder visibly higher than the other. This is consistent with contemporary descriptions of Richard. There is, however, no evidence for the "withered arm," as described by Shakespeare.
As Professor Lin Foxhall, Head of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, put it, "When I first agreed to be the human osteologist for the project, I had no idea that we would find remains of such significance. After months of careful analysis, we can now say that the evidence from the bone analysis provides a highly convincing case for the identification of Richard III. It has been hugely interesting to see the case for identification gradually unfold, and especially to see how closely the skeleton that we have found corresponds to contemporary accounts of Richard's appearance."
Jo Appleby, a human bioarchaeologist, also at the University of Leicester, and a member of the research team adds, "This has been a tremendously exciting project to be a part of and it's been a privilege to work as part such a great team. I will never forget the feeling of looking at the first sequencing results and seeing the match; I went utterly still. The study isn't over and there's still more work to be done, but at least the big part is out of the way: the DNA evidence, along with the archaeological evidence, makes an incredibly strong case for these being the remains of Richard III."
The researchers say Richard was probably killed by one of two injuries to the skull — one, possibly from a sword, the other, perhaps from a halberd — either of which would have been fatal. Ten wounds were discovered on the skeleton — but the trauma to the back of the head was the probable cause of death. Indeed, a large part of the skull was sheared off (see photo, right). Corpse was also subjected to "humiliation injuries," including a sword wound through the right buttock . It appears likely that the king's hands were tied at the time of his death.
Turi King, who did the DNA analysis, is amazed at the results of the study. "I'd realized the skeleton was going to be interesting as soon as Jo found the battle injuries on the skull but was still not seriously considering that it could be Richard III; so it was a bit of a shock when the curve of the spine was found. Then, with a lot of disbelief, there was this dawning realization that if you had a check list of everything you wanted to see on a skeleton to say it was Richard III, this ticked every box. The enormity of the discovery didn't sink in till much later, though. As an archaeologist it is really unusual to be given a chance to be looking for someone who you can actually put a name to, who isn't anonymous, but is an important historical figure with a tangible story. Sometimes it feels a bit surreal, Indiana Jones-ish even — 'The University of Leicester and the Quest for the Lost King'!"
Based on materials obtained from AAAS