Really Richard

Posted on February 17, 2013


That’s the verdict of researchers at the University of Leicester who late last year, in a targeted research project, recovered skeletal remains they suspected could be those of Richard III, King of England from 1483 to 1485.

I saved the link to the original story in the New York Times back in late September 2012, thinking I would write something about it eventually. Although the story was a little short on details of the archaeology, it was enough to show that for once, the reporting was reporting what the archaeologists really said:

a University of Leicester archaeologist working in a trench cut into a parking lot… noted signature characteristics that pointed strongly to Richard: a deformed spine, what she has described as a mortal battlefield wound in the back of the skull from a bladed instrument and a barbed metal arrowhead found between two upper vertebrae.

The remains were buried in the choir, an area of the priory church where Franciscan monks would have sat during ceremonies, close to the altar. It was in the choir that one of the most credible contemporary accounts said Richard had been interred.

But that pointer proved moot when Henry VIII seized and ransacked the monasteries in 1538, leaving priories like Greyfriars to crumble into rubble, to the point where centuries later, nobody had any precise fix as to where they once stood.

That left the archaeologists to determine, using ground-penetrating radar, where the priory had been. Their big break came when it proved to be not under a 19th-century bank building where local legend and scholarship had placed it, but under the more accessible parking lot across the street.

That narrative piqued my interest. But as the story noted, the confirmation would depend on lab tests that would follow. Those are now in, and are spectacularly supportive of the identification.

The New York Times quoted geneticist Turi King’s account

DNA samples from two modern-day descendants of Richard III’s family had provided a match with samples taken from the skeleton found in the priory ruins. … the descendants’ mitochondrial DNA, a genetic element inherited through the maternal line of descent, matched that extracted from the parking lot skeleton. She said all three samples belonged to a type of mitochondrial DNA that is carried by only 1 to 2 percent of the English population, a rare enough group to satisfy the project team.

While press coverage has almost entirely emphasized Richard the singular historical person, I am delighted above all by the way the archaeologists involved controlled the story. They have produced what I think is the single best archaeology project website I have ever seen. Day by day accounts of the work; explanations of the analyses and what can be known from them; and even clarification that the original mention of a “barbed arrowhead” was wrong.

Even in the earliest press coverage the archaeologists involved managed to keep bringing up implications of the find:

Lin Foxhall, the chairwoman of Leicester University’s archaeological services department, said preliminary diagnosis of the curved spine pointed to a condition known as scoliosis, which often causes one shoulder to be raised higher than the other — exactly how contemporary accounts described Richard.

“It doesn’t fit with Tudor sources which portray Richard as a wicked hunchback,” Dr. Foxhall said … “There was a long history from Greco-Roman times onward of associating physical disability like spinal deformations with negative character traits, a belief that we explicitly do not share today….

“The individual we have discovered was obviously strong and active despite his disability.”

This kind of re-thinking of what human physical difference can mean has resonance for the contemporary world. It takes public enthusiasm about one famous (or infamous) person and demands we reflect on the population at large.

The Leicester team’s explanation of the genealogical work and the way transmission from mother to daughter over 18 generations was established also deserves applause. They add that while the work reported is on maternally transmitted DNA (mitochondrial DNA) it is also theoretically possible to trace DNA transmitted on the Y chromosome, through a line of men, although as they note, there is a drawback:

Male descent is often easier to trace in historical archives where the exploits of men are generally better documented than those of their wives and daughters, but suffers from one obvious potential pitfall. We can always be sure who someone’s mother was, but the identity of their ‘father’ and their genetic male parent do not always coincide, as Y-chromosome analysis can reveal. Genealogy is one area of research where a comment of “Bastard” is not always gratuitous swearing…

I love the clarity of the science and the humor both.

For me, the single most intriguing thing is something not really emphasized in the press, probably because it is one place where the story is a normal archaeological one: it’s complicated. That would be the matter of the radiocarbon dating of the remains.

The New York Times reports the date of death of the buried individual as “between 1455 and 1540″. The Leicester site steps us through the process of arriving at a date, starting with the raw lab results:

The SUERC results showed a 95% probability that the bone samples dated from around AD1430-1460, and over in Oxford the results both came out at around AD1412-1449, again with a 95% confidence.

Oh dear.

Oh dear indeed. Taken at face value, Richard III died before he reigned.

But there is an explanation, and it is my very favorite thing we have learned about Richard:

The proportion of C-14 in the atmosphere, and hence in living things… varies between the atmosphere and the oceans. Radiocarbon dating of marine organisms can be out by up to several hundred years, and this effect can occur to a lesser degree in terrestrial life where sea-food forms part of the diet.

The mass spectrometry of the Greyfriars bone samples reveals that the individual in question had a high-protein diet including a significant proportion of seafood.

In this one little comment we see the privilege of the nobility: access to food different than that enjoyed by most people.

On February 4th, I was asked to be part of a public radio panel about the identification of Richard III, along with someone described to me as a historian from Stanford, but actually a professor of English and Comparative Literature. On the program, the host leads by asking the Stanford professor what the significance of this find will be. The answer he received makes sense– it will have primarily commemorative value, bringing the one English ruler whose burial place was unknown into the light.

But in making that point, my colleague went further, and said it probably wouldn’t change what we know about Richard III. I am sure he was thinking, it doesn’t tell us if Richard killed his nephews or not, it doesn’t tell us if he was the malign figure Shakespeare represented.

But on behalf of archaeologists everywhere, I disagreed. We know that this man, who lived 500 years ago, ate considerable amounts of fish. Those telling details matter; not just because it allowed the radiocarbon dates to be corrected; but because it is a window into the everyday practices that made up his life, practices that are recorded, if no where else, in our bones.