The Discovery of King Richard III’s Skeletal Remains

“Such stuff as dreams are made on.” Shakespeare via Prospero said it best, though its modern interpretation may not be exactly what Shakespeare intended. To find the skeletal remains of King Richard III only two feet below the surface of the earth in a modern parking lot in Leicester, England, really is a dream come true for archaeologists and biological anthropologists in Britain. Vilified by Shakespeare in his play and alleged to have exterminated his two young nephews, Richard III was only thirty-two when he was killed in the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, ending the Wars of the Roses. He was the last English king to be felled in battle. History records that he was buried in an unmarked grave in the Greyfriars church by a small group of faithful supporters. The church was demolished in the 1530s as part of Henry VIII’s suppression of monasteries, and ultimately a parking lot was built on the site. An amazing job of interpreting old maps and sleuthing—with the assistance, of course, of twenty-first-century technology and know-how—aided in his discovery in 2012 and his positive identification in February 2013.

For forensic anthropologists like me, the identification includes multiple levels of interest. First, British researchers state that dramatic perimortem trauma (at or near the time of death) to the base of the king’s skull appeared to be the result of one blow—which in all probability quickly killed him—with a halberd, a medieval weapon composed of a razor-sharp iron ax blade topped with a spike and mounted on a wooden pole. Now that’s a weapon! Other injuries to his skeleton, particularly those to his buttocks region, may substantiate the legend that he was thrown across a horse after death and paraded through the village, where his body may have been further damaged by locals.

Secondly, the skeletal remains confirm history’s description of his frail body prior to death. He was said to be “slight of build” and had what in modern times is known as adolescent idiopathic scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, the origin of which often remains unclear even today. The found skeleton has that condition, which more than likely caused the king to have considerable pain when walking and perhaps resulted in an unusual appearance and gait. One thing forensic anthropologists attempt to establish while trying to identify remains is whether or not that person suffered from some antemortem condition that would translate into an identifying characteristic present in his or her bones after death. Scoliosis would qualify as a very important signature.

Thirdly, DNA technology, which we use in our forensic cases on a regular basis, allows a comparison between a known individual and an unknown person in order to establish a positive identification through a genetic link. A sample was taken from the ancient skeletal remains, and the profile resulting from the sample was compared to the DNA profile of a living male who is a direct descendant of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. Another DNA sample from a second source corroborated the results. The remains found in Leicester are those of King Richard III! Additionally, isotope analysis of the king’s bones and teeth sheds light on his diet and other aspects of his past.

Currently the Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory at Louisiana State University is conducting isotope analysis on modern and ancient remains, hopefully revealing secrets to unidentified persons’ place of birth and last-known area of residence. Known for its imaging work, the LSU FACES Lab may very well be interested in completing a facial reconstruction on the king if for no other reason to compare it to period paintings of him. The recovery and identification of Richard III’s skeletal remains 500 years after his death—in spite of legends such as the one claiming that his body had been dug up and tossed into a local river—attests to the tenacity of scientific researchers who seek the truth against substantial odds regarding lost individuals from both historic and modern times.

Mary H. Manhein is the director of the Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory at Louisiana State University and the author of The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist and Trail of Bones: More Cases from the Files of a Forensic Anthropologist. The final volume in her trilogy, Bone Remains: Cold Cases in Forensic Anthropology, will be published by LSU Press in fall 2013.