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Photo courtesy of the University of Leicester

DNA was only a piece in the puzzle of trying to identify Richard III's remains.

Richard III couldn’t take his case to court

by Sarah Sipek
Feb 5, 2013

In the case of the late Richard III, the evidence was strong enough for archeologists to award him his crown.

But would their identification stand up in court of law?

The identification of the king's remains - uncovered in a parking lot in Leicester, England - is supported with a wealth of evidence by the University of Leicester research team that performed the DNA analysis. But, when it comes to remains, it’s all circumstantial.

“It’s not just biological,” said Maria Lozada, a bio-archeologist and research associate at the University of Chicago’s anthropology department. “It’s always difficult to pinpoint identity when so much of the identification process is contextual.”

According to Lozada, DNA evidence is just a part of the identification process. In order for genetic material to have any impact, archeologists must first develop a solid profile for comparison.

This involves creating an accurate family tree to locate a relative for DNA comparison, which is not always an easy feat. King Richard III, for instance, died on the battlefield in 1485.

“DNA samples could often also match a brother or another close relative that has not been accounted for,” said Anne Grauer, the chair of the anthropology department at Loyola University Chicago.

This forces researchers to rely heavily on context clues.

“You need to look to other sources of information and assemble as much data as possible,” Grauer said.  “Researchers depend on written records, archeological profiles, church records and even paintings to help identify remains.” 

The nature of the battle wounds, including a large skull fracture behind the left ear that is consistent with a blow from a medieval weapon called a halberd, along with the pronounced curvature of the spine support the theory that the remains are those of Richard III.

However, the depiction of a cruel and deformed Richard III is heavily influenced by literature, specifically by William Shakespeare’s play about the king, said David Bevington, the chair of theater and performance studies at the University of Chicago.

Written when England was under the rule of the Tudors, Bevington described the play as highly propagandistic. Richard III, who died at 32, was the last of England's Plantagenet kings, defeated in battle by Henry Tudor, who won the throne as Henry VII.  

“Elizabeth was on the throne and it was popular to see the rise of the Tudors as a success" after the fall of Richard’s line, Bevington said.

Royal influence accounts for Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III as a hunchback willing to kill anyone who stands in the way of his ascension to the throne.

Identifications are the result of researchers reconciling biological evidence with historical understanding. 

Researchers take their time with this process. It took 10 years to confirm the identity of King Tut after his tomb chamber was discovered in 1922. 

While mitochondrial DNA passed down through the mother helped to confirm the identity of the remains as Richard III, Grauer and Lozada agree that more information is always beneficial.

“You always have to be careful,” Grauer said. “The more points of similarity, the more statistically relevant the identification becomes.”