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Science Fit for the Stage: DNA Sequencing Confirms Identity of Richard III's Skeleton

Archaeologists and scientists have announced that the remains found last summer beneath a Leicester parking lot are those of Richard III, a much-maligned figure from English history. The story offers an enticing mix of history, literature, and science. Curious students, classes, and parents can learn more about genetics and genomics procedures used to solve the puzzle of the skeleton's identity.


Skeleton in Leicester
Human remains found in trench one of the Grey Friars dig. Photo: Courtesy of the University of Leicester.

"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried."

These famous opening lines were spoken by Shakespeare's Richard III in the play by the same name. The bard's portrayal of Richard III, based on Sir Thomas More's record, possibly set a skewed stage for the way history has remembered Richard III. Both in terms of physical appearance and bitter and ruthless personality, Shakespeare penned an unlikeable and unhappy anti-hero. To a degree, historical facts support the characterization. The story of Richard's rise to the throne and, notably, the disappearance of his nephews, the "Princes in the Tower," paints an undeniably negative picture of the last ruler from the Plantagenet family. But other accounts of Richard suggest that literature has had much to do with how Richard has been remembered.

Richard III was killed in 1485 during the Battle of Bosworth, the final conflict in the War of Roses, a series of battles between the houses of Lancaster and York for the throne of England. With Richard's death, Henry VII ascended to the throne and began rule by the Tudors, a ruling dynasty that continued for more than one hundred years. Historical account of what happened to Richard III after his death is vague. Some maintained his remains had been buried near a local church, but as the years passed, the original location of the Greyfriars Friary was lost.
The lack of concrete knowledge regarding the fallen king's burial fed an aura of mystery regarding Richard's remains, a mystery that has intrigued historians for years and a puzzle that a team of scientists and archaeologists from the University of Leicester undertook to solve.


Digging into History

Last August, the remains of a body were found in Leicester, England by a team led by archaeologist Richard Buckley. Having determined the location, they thought, of the original Greyfriars Friary, a parking lot now, Buckley and team began to dig. They turned up "a human skeleton, complete with evidence of battle wounds—a blow to the head, and an arrow in the back—and scoliosis, or curvature of the spine."

Radiocarbon dating of the skeleton confirmed that the individual died in the second half of the 15th or in the early 16th century, which fits with Richard's death in 1485. The age of the individual at the time of death was posited as late 20s or early 30s. Richard died at 32. These results offered early indication that the remains might be the ones for which the team had been searching and fueled the quest for irrefutable identification. Characteristics of the skeleton, including the scoliosis and evidence of a fatal blow to the head further appeared to corroborate the story. But many people died in the late 1400s. Determining, without a doubt, the identity of the skeleton required more comprehensive and sophisticated research and science.

Richard III: History and Literature


After many months of scientific inquiry, the identity of the remains has now been announced as conclusively belonging to the oft-maligned king. The announcement has left many intrigued. More than 500 years have passed, but a number of clues and the results of many scientific procedures, including mitochondrial DNA sequencing and radiocarbon dating, all go together to tell a unified story: the skeleton is that of Richard III.


The Thrill of Science

For young scientists, the story of Richard's exhumation and discovery is one that combines the best of history, adventure, mystery, and science. In a fitting twist, this week's science news tells a tale worthy of the stage. But in the end, science held the key to the identification of the skeleton. As detailed on the University of Leicester's The Search for Richard III site devoted to the excavation and identification, the many stages of scientific research and analysis included DNA extraction, X-ray tomography, osteology, and carbon dating.

Students fascinated by the story can conduct their own genetics and genomics science explorations to learn more about the processes scientists used to solve the puzzle of the skeleton's identity. The following Project Ideas guide students in hands-on research working with BLAST and building evolutionary trees using mitochondrial sequences:

Stay tuned! A new Project Idea is coming to Science Buddies that will give students a chance to simulate radiocarbon dating.


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Your Science!
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