by Greg Mayer
No, it’s not an avant-garde staging of Shakespeare, but the actual skeletal remains of the last Plantagenet king of England. Archeologists recovered the remains last summer based on historical accounts of where he was interred following his death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. The church of Greyfriars in which he had been buried had been demolished centuries earlier and its exact location forgotten, but a body was quickly located, and the strong scoliosis of the spine indicated it might well be Richard.
The skeleton also exhibited numerous wounds, especially on the back of the head, consistent with death during a medieval battle. Osteologists also estimated the age of the male skeleton to be late 20’s to early 30’s (Richard died at 32), and radiocarbon analysis dated it to 1455-1540. The piece de resistance was the matching of mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton to a 17th generation descendant of Richard’s sister in the female line, meaning Richard and the descendant, Michael Ibsen of London, would have the same mitochondrial DNA (except for any mutations occurring in the intervening centuries). A second tested relative chose to remain anonymous; it could concievably be a member of the current royal family, since at least one of Richard’s female relatives married into the succeeding House of Tudor, but I don’t know the genealogy of the English royal families well enough to know if there is a continuous female line from a female progenitor of Richard to the current royal family.
The BBC has a very nice interactive guide to the remains, as well as several other linked pages describing the findings, including a video by geneticist and FOJ Steve Jones explaining the power of DNA in identification (not embeddable). Overall, it’s a really neat story about how multiple lines of evidence- osteology, archeology, genetics- allow us to make confident inferences about the past. I hope that the researchers will publish a paper with the details, as was done in the case of the genetic studies that showed that Anna Anderson was not Anastasia Romanova (pdf; may be paywalled).