Royal Remains: Scientific Testing Identifies the Skeleton of England's Richard III

Laura Brown
7 February 2013

Above: King Richard III at Bosworth Field (James William Edmund Doyle)

Did You Know? Scoliosis is a medical condition where the vertebrae have twisted along the length of the spine. It results in an abnormal S- or C-shaped curve to the spine.On September 12, 2012, archaeologists discovered skeletal remains underneath a parking lot in Leicester, England. It was quickly determined that the bones belonged to a man who suffered from scoliosis, and who was probably killed by a blow the skull or the barbed metal arrow still lodged between the vertebrae of his upper back. All this pointed to the possibility that these were the lost remains of Richard III, the notorious medieval king who ruled England from 1483 to 1485, during the War of the Roses!

King Richard III, by unknown artist, late 16th century. Click to enlarge (Scanned from The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England, by David Williamson)

On February 5, 2012, scientists announced that the remains did indeed belong to the last Plantagenet king. They made this claim only after making sure that the historical, physical, and forensic evidence all lined up. In particular, radiocarbon dating and genetic testing helped bolster the more circumstantial evidence.

Richard III was defeated and killed in 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The battle was won by Henry Tudor, who then took the throne as Henry VII. Historical accounts suggest that Richard III was unceremoniously buried in an unmarked grave in Leicester's Greyfriars Church, after his naked and bloodied body was paraded around town on horseback.

Did You Know? Willard Libby developed the process known as radiocarbon dating in the late 1940s. He was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his innovation.The age of the bones was confirmed using radiocarbon dating (also called carbon dating). All living organisms and their remains are composed of carbon-based compounds. Carbon dating helps determine the age of organic materials by measuring the radioactive decay (the process whereby the nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionizing particles) of the carbon isotope 14C (carbon-14). When an organism is alive, it absorbs carbon-14 from the atmosphere. After death, this absorption process ends and the amount of radioactive 14C declines. The ratio between the amount of carbon-14 and the amount of stable (unchanging) carbon-12 (12C) in the organic matter can be used to estimate the time since death, providing a reliable estimate of the age of the sample. In this case, radiocarbon dating indicated the Leicester skeleton was approximately 500 years old. This corresponds perfectly with the brief reign of Richard III.

Meanwhile, genetic testing was performed on DNA samples obtained from the skeleton's teeth and bones. DNA from the remains was analyzed and compared to DNA from a direct descendant of Richard III’s older sister. The king's 17th great-grand-nephew, originally from London, Ontario, currently works as a cabinetmaker in London, England. After several months of intensive work, a successful match provided conclusive evidence that the remains were indeed those of Richard III.

The successful resolution of this royal mystery is a remarkable example of forensic science at its “mystery-solving” best!

Learn More! Confirmed: bones belong to Richard III (The Australian) Richard III dig: 'Strong evidence' bones are lost king (BBC) Remains Confirmed as King Richard III's (Jenny Gross, The Wall Street Journal) How Carbon-14 Dating Works (Marshall Brain, HowStuffWorks) How has radiocarbon dating changed archaeology? (Jessika Toothman, HowStuffWorks)

Laura Brown

Laura is an Education Specialist with Let’s Talk Science. With a background in agricultural sciences and visual arts, she is interested in most everything, from pigs to Picasso! She developed her love of science and technology from her parents and teachers.

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