Friday, February 1st, 2013
Remember back in the salad days of late August 2012 when a team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester began digging a couple of trenches to see if they could locate the Greyfriars church where King Richard III was buried after his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth? Sure, there was some talk of looking for the remains of the king, but it was a goof almost, since nobody in their right mind would believe that the king whose body had reputedly been dragged through the town and thrown into the Soar River during the dissolution of the monasteries 475 years ago was even there to be found, never mind that his location could be pinpointed in a two-week two-trench dig.
Then weird stuff started happening. Everything went right. Things got found, things leading to other things being found and locations pinpointed so that a third trench was dug and the excavation time extended. On September 12th it all came to a (cleaved) head. A press conference was called to announce the discovery of human remains: a male skeleton with scoliosis, perimortem slicing to the back of the head and a barbed arrowhead between two vertebrae of his spine.
The evidence strongly suggested that these were indeed the mortal remains of the last Plantagenet king and the last king of England to die in battle, but despite its strength it was still circumstantial. Only DNA can prove beyond any doubt that this is the skeleton of King Richard III, and extracting DNA from archaeological remains is a tricky business. DNA molecules degrade over time, nuclear DNA at twice the rate of mitochondrial DNA, so getting testable samples from a skeleton that has been buried for almost 530 years is not always possible. Even if DNA can be retrieved from protected areas like inside the teeth or the bone, just breathing on it can be enough to contaminate a sample with modern DNA.
Genealogical researchers located someone they think is a direct descendant of Richard III’s sister Anne through the female line. Assuming they’re right, if a clean sample of mtDNA were extracted from the skeleton it could be compared to that of Michael Ibsen, 17th generation nephew of Richard III. To ensure the best possible conditions, the University of Leicester lab is testing the modern DNA while a laboratory that specializes in sampling and testing ancient DNA is extracting the DNA from the skeleton.
That’s not all. The skeleton has also been given a CT scan so that a 3D digital image of the man can be constructed similar to the one that produced the face of King Tut in this post. Researchers have collected samples of the dental calculus from his teeth to find out more about his diet and health, as per the technique described in this post with the extremely gross picture. The skeleton is being radiocarbon dated in two separate labs. Forensic pathologists are examining the bones to hopefully determine the cause of death, and experts in medieval weaponry are lending their expertise to narrow down what sharp implement might have caused the damage to the back of the skull.
At the September press conference, the team estimated that the DNA results could take as long as 12 weeks. Twelve weeks ended on December 5th, but no results were forthcoming. There were rumors swirling about that the University of Leicester was deliberately holding back evidence so that they could release it in conjunction with an upcoming documentary on the discovery to air on Britain’s Channel 4, rumors the University strenuously denied.
Well, the wait is almost over now. On Monday, February 4th, at 10:00 AM GMT, the University of Leicester will reveal the results of their tests and investigation at a press conference. The University won’t be streaming it live, but press outlets will be present and cameras will be rolling, so we’ll probably be able to follow via BBC livestream like last time.
I was up at the crack of dawn, high on nerdrenaline, to liveblog the last press conference, so as long as there’s video to follow, you know I will be this time too. Meanwhile, there’s a Google + group you can join to keep abreast of all Richard III-related news.
Oh, and that documentary which the University of Leicester was definitely not holding back information to be in sync with just happens to be airing on Monday evening. Richard III: The King in the Car Park debuts on Channel 4 at 9:00 PM GMT.