Identifying a dead English king more complicated than Miami CSI

 

DNA testing, environmental sampling and radiocarbon dating are some of the tests being  done to determine whether a skeleton found in Leicester UK are indeed the mortal remains of Richard III - an infamous king of England and subject of an eponymous play by William Shakespeare. Experts are planning to perform a facial reconstruction based on the skull and forensic evidence. The project's lead archaeologist is Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester's Archaeological Services, has explained the processes the skeleton is being subjected to.
 
The complexity and rigorousness of the tests mean that the results of the skeleton's identity will not come overnight. For example, once the skeleton was exhumed, soil samples were taken from the grave and from around the skeleton which may provide information about burial practices of the time. Sampling will also reveal evidence about the environment of the burial and the health and diet of the person. Already, the skeleton has been given a computed-tomography (CT) scan which will allow scientists to create a 3-D digital image of the individual. Scientists hope to reconstruct the individual's face in a similar way to the images created of of the Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamun, following CT scans of the 3,000-year-old mummy.
 
Also, samples of dental calculus - mineralized dental plaque that sometimes builds up around teeth - will be taken from the dentition and allow finding out more about the person's diet, health and living conditions. Samples have also been taken from the teeth and a long bone so that ancient DNA can be extracted and compared with that of Michael Ibsen, believed to be a descendant of Richard III's sister, Anne of York, via the female line. Extracting the DNA from these samples is not without risks, since just  breathing on 500-year-old remains can cause the sample to be contaminated with modern DNA. While the testing of modern DNA from Richard's modern relative, Michael Ibsen, is being carried out at Leicester, the extraction of DNA from the skeleton is taking place in partnership with "ancient DNA" testing facilities which will allow the sample to be tested safely, without risk of contamination.
 
A separate genealogical study is being undertaken to verify Ibsen's connection to the Plantagenet monarchs. Researchers also hope to identify a second line of ascent. Radiocarbon dating may reveal to within 80 years - the date the individual died. The skeleton has now been cleaned, and is currently being examined in an attempt to ascertain the individual's age, build and the nature of its spinal condition. Particular attention will be paid to the trauma to the skeleton which may have been incurred in battle – including the injury to the skull. Specialists in medieval battles and weaponry are advising the team on the kinds of instruments that may have caused the damage. The historical record shows that Richard III died following a severe blow to the cranium during battle. Pathologists at the University's East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit are also working with the team and are involved in helping to determine the cause of death.
 
Archaeologist Buckley said, "We are looking at many different lines of enquiry, the evidence from which all add up to give us more assurance about the identity of the individual. As well as the DNA testing, we have to take in all of the other pieces of evidence which tell us about the person's lifestyle – including his health and where he grew up." Speaking to the complexity of the analysis, Buckley added "There are many specialists involved in the process, and so we have to coordinate all of the tests so the analysis is done in a specific order.
 
"The ancient DNA testing in particular takes time and we need to work in partnership with specialist facilities. It is not like in CSI, where DNA testing can be done almost immediately, anywhere – we are reliant on the specialist process and facilities to successfully extract ancient DNA."
 
So far, the University of Leicester is clarified that it is not saying it has found King Richard III but that that the skeleton has characteristics that warrant extensive further detailed examination and that the search has moved from an archaeological to a laboratory phase. Outcomes are expected next year. In the meantime, a TV documentary is planned that will examine the life of the fallen king and the efforts to identify his remains. 


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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