Richard III’s spine recreated by 3D printer

3D printed recreation of Richard III's spine; pictures used to create the animation copyright the University of LeicesterFor those of you who are over all this Richard III malarkey (hi anja!), I hope you understand why this post has to be. There’s a rotating spine gif here, people. How can I be expected to resist that? I’m only human. Besides, the question of Richard’s spinal deformity, its existence, nature and extent, has been the subject of many histories and even more theatrical performances for more than five centuries.

Now we have some real answers courtesy of the University of Leicester team which has published a brief paper on Richard’s spine in The Lancet. You can read it free of charge if you register on the site.

When a body decomposes, different parts break down at different rates. Ligaments that hold the spine together are some of the last ones to decompose, so usually the way the spine is found in the grave is how it was in life. The curvature in Richard’s spine could not have been a function of how he was placed. This was confirmed by examination of the bones, which found that the vertebrae of the curve are slightly different shapes and sizes. The only way those bones would fit together in life was in a spine with scoliosis.

The skeleton laid out on a flat surface, however, only shows the sideways curvature of the spine. It takes a 3D model to see the full picture of the condition. The bones were scanned on a multi-detector CT scanner which takes high resolution images from every side, allowing them to be viewed as a whole 3D structure or in slices across any plane. The bones obviously were not joined, since the soft tissue is all gone and there is no software that will take the disconnected bones and put them back together the way they were in life. Usually that work is done by creating models.

Richard III's skeleton laid out in the labThe team was able to use the imaging data to generate a model which was printed out in a polymer using the advanced 3D printing equipment of the Wolfson School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering at Loughborough University in Leicestershire. This produces a near identical copy of the bones, only the model is durable, light weight and easily passed around, giving scientists the opportunity to study the skeletal structure without having to handle fragile human remains. Even after the king has been reburied, therefore, experts will still be able to examine his bones.

The bones of the spine join at three places: the gap between two vertebrae where there’s a disc and two facet joints at the back. With the plastic model, experts drilled a small hole in the center of each vertebra and ran a wire through them, separating each bone with a felt pad standing in for the disc. They then joined the facet joints using a similar technique. They saw that while the lumbar vertebrae in the lower spine appeared quite normal and fit together in a standard way, as they rose in the spine the osteoarthritic degeneration in the facet joints that was caused by the scoliosis increased markedly, deforming the joints. That deformity meant the bones fit together in a very specific way, an enforced thoracic curve that is the s-shaped bend in the spine we saw in the photographs of the skeleton in situ and in the lab. The measurement of the extent of the spinal curvature, called a Cobb angle, is 65-85 degrees. In today’s scoliosis patients that would be considered a large curvature to be corrected by the surgical implantation of metal rods. Once they reached the upper thoracic vertebrae, the facet joints returned to normal and the spine straightened out.

In addition to the sideways s-curve, the 3D model illuminates the spiral twist of the spine that you can only see when the spine is rotated. (You could see it even more clearly if the ribs were attached, but they haven’t 3D printed any ribs yet and probably won’t because many of them were broken when unearthed.) The model shows that the ribs on Richard’s back would have stuck out significantly on the right side, while they were sunken on the left. When he leaned forward, the prominent ribs on the right side of his back would have formed a hump. This would not have been visible, however, when he was clothed and in most any other position than leaning over, so all those pillows stuffed under costumes are way off.

The physical disfigurement from Richard’s scoliosis was probably slight since he had a well balanced curve. His trunk would have been short relative to the length of his limbs, and his right shoulder a little higher than the left. However, a good tailor and custom-made armour could have minimised the visual impact of this. A curve of 70—90° would not have caused impaired exercise tolerance from reduced lung capacity, and we identified no evidence that Richard would have walked with an overt limp, because the leg bones are symmetric and well formed.

He may or may not have had back pain. If his spinal curvature had been magically straightened, he’d have been 5'8" tall, about average for a man of the period. With the scoliosis he was two to three inches shorter.

The polymer model was photographed from 19 angles and the images used to create an interactive 3D model. You can click on it and drag it from side to side to examine the recreated spine from any perspective.


15 thoughts on “Richard III’s spine recreated by 3D printer

  1. W00t! :boogie: This is fascinating. I can’t help wondering what Richard would make of all of this. I imagine him standing in front of the model, mouth agape and wide-eyed.

    I’m afraid I don’t understand the passion of some of the folks who get really upset about the scoliosis. In the original broadcast of the discovery, a member of the Richard III Society was actually tearful when she came up against that spine.

    I’m not competent to hold an opinion on Richard’s “goodness” or “evil”, but can’t a person with scoliosis be good? Why does whether or not he had the condition arouse such animosity? His physical attributes have nothing to do with his ethos. We see Quasimodo as “good”.

    I don’t get it.

    1. I remember that part of the documentary. Philippa Langley was shocked almost to tears over the news of the curved spine. I don’t think it’s because she associates scoliosis with “evil,” though. She was just really invested in overturning the conventional wisdom about Richard’s deformity as Tudor propaganda and pure fiction. When it turned out there was a kernel of truth to the humpback stories, she had to turn on a dime and accept something she’d fought actively against for decades.

      In the end, this research shows that despite Richard’s scoliosis she was still right about the Tudor propaganda. There was no humpback, no withered limbs, no limp. I’m sure she’s gotten over that initial shock by now and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she considers his condition even more cause to respect him.

  2. Thanks, Liv. I think I understand, now.

    It isn’t whether or not his condition was a manifestation of “evil”, it’s that his detractors claimed that it was. His physical appearance was part and parcel of the anti-Richard propaganda package.

    Considering the emphasis placed on Henry VIII’s “pretty as a woman” reputation and all of the acclaim of his looks as indicative of his potential as a marvelous king, I can see where that comes from. If Richard didn’t “look” like a king, how could he be a legitimate one?

    I could see that it affected Ms. Langley, greatly, at the time and I was genuinely puzzled about why it should matter.

  3. Liv, may I ask one more question? Why does Richard III have such ardent supporters (and detractors)?

    From what I’ve read, he was a pretty good ruler. Is it the fact that he may have had children killed to facilitate his accession? I tend to not put a lot of weight on that…as far as rulers go. It seems that, historically, you have to wipe out your entire family before anyone sits up and takes notice. The Roman Principiate was notorious for this, even the “good” ones.

    Other British kings have removed “obstacles” before Richard and, possibly after, as well. Is it just that we can’t stand the idea of two young boys being kept imprisoned and then murdered? Or is it just our love for solving a mystery…sort of like Lizzie Borden?

    I know that Henry Tudor had to legitimize his weak claim to England, but why do we care…in 2014?

  4. May I speek as a ardent Richard supporter? I would have to guess that the reason for supporting or detracting would be as individual as each person themselves. I first picked up on Richard from watching “Tower Of London” with Basil Rathbone my fave actor, playing Richard. From there I started reading about him, and found him fascinating. Prehaps a bit of rooting for the underdog in there too. I understand Ms Langley’s felling when she found out that the “other side” might not have been lying. It sorta makes you jump into Richard “protection” mode. This post has made me very happy.It’s nice they have confirmed Richard wasn’t a hunchback and etc.Tyder propaganda. Altho the revolving spine makes me dizzy..I cant help thinking Richard’s spinning in his grave..kidding. Sandy I would urge you to read up on Richard read both sides. Most Richard supporters have, and come to your own conclusion. Let the facts speak for themselves. Oh and one other thing I do think Richard is good looking and that was before they found him. Even based on his paintings, I was tickeled to find out he was so good looking. “Henry VIII’s “pretty as a woman””EEK! 😮

  5. Countess, I thank you for your explanation. It’s nice to hear from someone who has done the research. :boogie:

    I have quite a bit of knowledge of the Tudor period, coming to it, like yourself, through fictionalized sources. I read a “historical romance” of Eliz.I when I was 8 or 9 and something in it set me off on a lifelong love of the era. I admit that, for me, Richard was just “the loser at Bosworth” but I have come across quite a few references, pro and con.

    One of the greatest things about Liv’s blog is that there are so many people who know what they are talking about :notworthy: so I’ll take your advice. Could you, or anyone, recommend some good books (pro and con) that I might read? This post has gotten me really intrigued and my “thirst for knowledge” button has been well and truly pushed.

    Thanks for your input!
    PS: I think he’s good-looking, too. I never did go for pretty boys.

  6. This is so fascinating! In my theatre history class we discussed Richard III and his portrayal by others vs how he would have actually acted/looked like. This brings a new perspective, thank you! 🙂

  7. Thank you for the complements Sandy.I asure you I’m not worthy. If yo want a list of books on Richard I suggest you check out this site. not promoting them mind you but theres a big list. Personal fav “Daughter Of Time” by Josephine Tye it’s fiction but it has more facts in it then any fiction book I ever read..and it’s a good read. Also like “Richard III” by Paul Murray Kendall. very good for non fiction. Aginst, mind you I hate to suggest any anti, Richard but..Desmond Stewarts “Richard III Englands Black Legend” is also very readable. As Is “The Princes in the Tower” by Alison Weir.if you want fiction I have trugged through “The Sun In Splender” and “The white Queen” I found the 1st LONG. and the 2nd to “forsoothey”. I did enjoy “We Speek No Treason” all of which are listed on that link. I did just read John AshDown Hill’s “The Last Days of Richard III” not Too long but very deep.I’d also sugest “This Son Of York” by Mary Clive It’s about Edward but has a lot on Richard Also a good non fiction read .Just adding if you could only read 1 make it “Daughter of Time”. Still seeing Henry 8th in a cotehardie with full beard singing “I Feel Pretty” form West Side Story” 😆

  8. As we clearly can see, ‘Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before their time’, the backbone of the Plantagenet Alliance is still moving.

    Where there is no big money involved, the ‘ardent support’ seems to be passion for passion’s sake, even if a more obvious explanation for people from modern England might be: ‘Escapism’.

    A nice 45min piece on the Bosworth Field, also in comparison to the events at Tawton, is the YT video that has been filed under ‘IjfiXw6me0A’.

  9. Thank you for all that hard work, Countess! I really appreciate it.

    Henry VIII singing = :giggle: :giggle: :giggle: :giggle: :giggle:

  10. I believe that Ms Langley was upset because what they told her was that he was a hunchback – which was not in fact true. So yes, it would be a shock.

    1. They didn’t. I recently saw the documentary again, and they told her he had a spinal curvature. She may have assumed that meant his back was hunched, but they didn’t make that claim.

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