The Hunt for a King: How Archeologists Found Richard III

Skull of Richard III. University of Leicester/Rex Features, via AP

How do you go about identifying a long-lost medieval king? Forget CSI: Middle Ages for a second. The first thing you do is look at a bunch of old maps.

The announcement on February 4 that a skeleton lifted last year from beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, could be identified “beyond reasonable doubt” as that of King Richard III is the most exciting historical discovery of the year–maybe the century–so far.

Yet the project ultimately stemmed from a humble 31-page desk report completed in April 2011 by Leon Hunt, a member of the University of Leicester’s Archaeological Services. On the cover of the report is a sepia photo of a brick wall. This was the treasure map that led researchers to the controversial king’s remains. X marks the spot.

Hunt’s report was the starting point of the much broader interdisciplinary work by the University of Leicester, which combined archeology, bone analysis, genealogy, and DNA sampling. All of the high technology that went into the recovery of Richard would have been useless if the team had not known, in the first place, where to look.

A quick recap. As you know from learning the colors of the rainbow: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain. Or to put it another way, he was killed at the battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485. Once dead, Richard was stripped naked, tied to a horse, and taken to Leicester, where he was displayed, abused, and eventually buried in a shallow grave at the Church of the Grey Friars.

The Greyfriars was destroyed during Henry VIII’s Reformation in the 1530s. It used to be said that Richard’s bones had been thrown in the nearby River Soar. Now we know they were not. But they were certainly forgotten and mislaid as, over the years, the former church land was used as private gardens, a bus depot, a school playground, and a parking lot.

To work out where the Greyfriars once stood, Hunt’s report compared maps of the area dating from 1741 to today. By overlaying them, he came up with a speculative plan of the old church that suggested that the choir, where Richard would likely have been buried, would be located somewhere on what is now two parking lots.

Based on that research, and with help from the Leicester City Council and Philippa Langley, the enthusiastic if occasionally swivel-eyed member of the Richard III Society who has coordinated the project behind the scenes, the team secured permission to dig three trenches during the late summer of 2012.

On the first day of the dig, August 24, a skeleton was uncovered about two feet below the earth. It was covered up for more than a week while other parts of the trench were excavated. Then, between September 4 and 5, the bones were exhumed and taken to a university laboratory for tests.

jones-fe01-richard-iii-science-second Remains of King Richard III. University of Leicester/Demotix, via Corbis

Then there were several strands to the investigation. The bones were examined for evidence of how the person had lived and died. They revealed striking features.

First, from about the age of 10 the individual had suffered scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, a condition that causes back pain and deformity. In this case, the person would have stood with the right shoulder higher than the left—which Tudor writers suggested Richard had suffered. Second, it seemed to have had rather puny limbs. Again—this matched descriptions of the king.

Third, it had been hacked about. A chunk was missing from the back of the skull, an arrowhead was lodged in the spine, and there were several other wounds, including one to the pelvis that suggested a strike to the buttocks with a blade. This helped lead to the conclusion that the person had suffered “humiliation wounds” after death.

So far, so circumstantial. Radio-carbon dating suggested the body had been buried between the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and that in life the individual had eaten a lot of seafood—a nod to an aristocratic lifestyle. But a bloke who liked fish, had one lopsided shoulder, and died fighting? This could still have been any warrior nobleman of the Wars of the Roses era, hardly in short supply in the 15th-century Midlands.

The clincher was the DNA tests. A genealogical team found two people descended through the female line from Richard III’s sister Anne of York. One was a Canadian carpenter called Michael Ibsen, now living in London. The other remains anonymous. But both delivered DNA swabs—and they matched that of samples taken from the skeleton.

jones-fe01-richard-iii-science-third The bones revealed a fish-eating, lopsided nobleman who had been brutally killed. University of Leicester/Demotix, via Corbis

Put it all together, and what have you got? The man behind the history, the legend, and the black propaganda. The Richard III Society commissioned a professor of craniofacial reconstruction to revive Richard III’s face. The waxy image looks uncannily like the famous portrait of Richard now owned by the Society of Antiquaries, and also like Quentin Tarantino.

Now we Brits are all arguing about the precise level of regal pageantry with which this poor, prodded skeleton should be reburied at Leicester Cathedral. But some of us are wondering: whom do we dig up next?