When dead men speak…

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When dead men speak…

Last month, archeologists announced the discovery of a skeleton under a parking lot in Leicester, in the English Midlands. Not just any skeleton, but likely the remains of King Richard III, painted by legend, history and William Shakespeare as a murderous double-crosser.

(Updated 2 December 2014)

A study just published in Nature Communications reveals that infidelity, on the male side, occurred either before or after Richard III. Depending on the time frame, the finding could cast doubt on the lineage of the Windsors, or of Richard himself.(End update)

(Updated 4 February 2013)

British archeologists today revealed that skeleton recently found in Leicester was indeed that of Richard III, the last British king to die in battle. Further, they detailed that his gruesome death probably came from a blow to the brain from heavy battle axe called a halberd. After death, his body was mutilated before he was crammed into a too-small grave. (End update)

Think a Middle Aged scheming dictator prototype.

Echoing the theme of “bury the bigwigs in a forgotten grave,” on Sept 28, Michigan police drilled under a shed where a tipster said the body of infamous Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa, missing since 1975, had been buried.

Within a week, the samples proved to be devoid of any human remains.

Both Richard and Jimmy likely had bloody hands. Hoffa was notorious for ties to the Mafia. It’s debated, but in his brief reign, Richard supposedly killed his nephews to gain the throne, then caught his comeuppance in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

Richard was particularly keen to uphold the law of the land and to ensure that it was made available to all ranks of society. His first act as king was to summon his judges and command that justice be administered impartially and without prejudice or corruption. In December 1483 he initiated the Court of Requests, a system of legal aid which enabled those who could not afford representation to have their grievances heard.

Richard’s last above-ground days featured a two-day, horseback parade of his naked, broken corpse through Leicester. Then he was buried in Greyfriars Church, since demolished.

The victorious Tudors crowned Henry VII, ending the War of the Roses and establishing the Tudor monarchy, which ruled until 1603.

English historians are snagged in a debate: Was Richard really so wretched, or was he smackhanded by the wrong end of a history written by his Tudor enemies? Having seen Shakespeare’s “Richard III” this summer, we were stunned that some think the ol’ tyrant was actually a reformer:

King of the car-park, or all of England?

For certain, Richard III was the last English King killed in battle, and the only one whose gravesite served as a car-park. A parking lot, as we Yankees call it, is where a team led by archeologist Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester unearthed the suspect skeleton earlier this year.

Finding Richard’s remains could be the archeological coup of the century in Britain — if it’s true. The ongoing investigation is unusual, though not unique, due to the wealth of history about Richard and his era, and the desire to identify the bones rather than just understand them.

Now that the archeologists have removed the remains and covered the site for protection against winter, we wonder: How do archeologists start to explore a body found in the dirt?

These questions become essential starting points:

What’s in the grave soil? “They could use flotation to try to extract microscopic things, like seeds, that might relate to flowers that might have been put into the grave,” says Sissel Schroeder, a professor of archeology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They also could sift the soil for pieces of clothing. Although fabric and leather probably would not survive, there might be buttons, pins, or metal ornaments.”

What’s in the grave? Objects placed with the body reveal how survivors regarded the dead person.

How old are the bones? Radiocarbon dating measures the decay of an unstable carbon isotope that stops entering the body at death. This standard technique can show if the carbon-14 level has been falling since 1485, when Richard died.

Was he a healthy kid? “We can look at nutritive stress that shows up as Harris lines on the bones, which show periods of arrested growth,” says Schroeder. “This is a well-known public figure, so there may be information about illness he suffered as a child, or a famine that could have affected the royals.”

What does the DNA say? Experts are comparing samples from the skeleton to a distant descendant of Richard. “Looking at DNA is a great idea,” says Schroeder. Scientists have extracted DNA from the Neandertals and mammoths, but “that can be tricky. Sometimes small fragments do survive adequately, but a lot depends on depositional conditions,” particularly soil chemistry. “It might be possible to make the link with Richard, but … I’d think there would be a lot of ambiguity.”


Skeleton on left side with knees bent, surrounded by clay pots, copper knives, flints, pots, wristguards

The Amesbury archer, dating to about 2300 BCE, had the most artifacts of any Bronze-age burial in Britain. “Grave goods” provide a nuanced picture of a person’s life and death.

Boning up on bones

Richard died in battle, and we’ve already heard that the back of the skull shows a major bash-in. Fracture near the time of death should be distinctive, says Tiffiny Tung, in the department of anthropology at Vanderbilt University.

In a dry, aged bone, the break is fairly clean, and at roughly 90°, Tung says. In a living bone, “the break tends to be hinged [rather like a broken, living tree branch]. The break stays adhered to the original bone, there is a homogenous color around the fracture … and no sign of healing.”

Location matters, Tung says. “Some injuries are more offensive, and some are more defensive. A wound on the posterior [back] of the skull means the person was bowing his head or fleeing, it’s a more defensive wound. Wounds on the frontal left side of the skull signify face-to-face combat with a right-handed opponent. We can say many nuanced things about the battle according to where the wounds are.”

Isotopes tell tales

Isotopes — chemically identical atoms with different masses — are some of the subtlest tracers in the physical realm. Oxygen and strontium isotopes are both likely to enter the Richard case, says T. Douglas Price, a professor emeritus of anthropology and isotope expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


man with stick in mouth, woman smiles nearby

Michael Ibsen, a descendant of Richard III, is not brushing his teeth in public. He’s swabbing his cheek to supply DNA for geneticist Turi King. With luck, DNA testing will help identify the mystery man found beneath the parking lot.

Oxygen in rain can enter drinking water and lodge in the bones and teeth; the ratio of lighter and heavier oxygen isotopes is affected by climate, elevation, latitude and distance from the ocean, says Price.

As bedrock breaks down, its strontium content enters the soil and then plants, and finally the bones of animals that eat those plants.

Strontium is more useful since it can carry finer geographic distinctions, but neither isotope is likely to identify the Leicester body, Price says, because Richard was born nearby.

“The geology across the area is pretty homogenous, which means the isotopes are going to be pretty similar. If it is Richard, his isotope ratios for strontium and oxygen are probably going to indicate that he is a local person … but you can’t say it’s Richard versus someone else from the area.”

However, if strontium and oxygen show that the dead person grew up a long distance away, they could disprove the Richard hypothesis.

Lead isotopes are getting increasing attention from archeologists and Price says they could be more helpful. Lead mines are rare, and their ores tend to have a distinctive isotope signature. “If people are living in the vicinity of these sources, or where lead from those sources is moving by water, you might have some isotopic signature.”


Half of lower jaw with teeth intact and a piece of gold jewelry on jaw bone

A jaw found near the Amesbury Archer contained gold earrings. Teeth are an excellent source of isotopes for analysis.

Clues from the immune system

To gauge the health of past populations, archeologists routinely comb DNA, looking for evidence of infectious disease. Now we hear about a technique that shows how a once-living person responded to these infections.

In a study of a 500-year-old Incan mummy called “the maiden,” Angelique Corthals, of Stony Brook University School of Medicine, swabbed mummy lips and used mass spectrometry to catalog amino acids in the sample.

Much as calumny and vituperation can be the “bricks” of political campaigns, amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. “We are getting, literally, the fingerprints of the amino acids,” says Corthals, an assistant professor of pathology.

By identifying immune-system proteins based on the amino-acid profile, Corthals concluded that the Maiden died fighting a lung infection.


Drooped head of mummy with somewhat distorted face and lots of dark, braided hair

Credit: Angelique Corthals, Proteomics Center, Stony Brook University
Proteins analyzed 500 years after death show that this young girl died with lung disease caused by a Mycobacterium (a member of the group of bacteria that also causes tuberculosis). Analysis of immune proteins could answer persistent doubts about the cause of black death, which decimated medieval Europe.

The maiden was a “virgin of the sun, a girl chosen to stay within a specific compound and be a servant to the Inca emperor in Cuzco,” says Corthals. “Living permanently in close quarters … with open earth floors could be very irritating to the lungs,” likely setting the stage for opportunistic infection.

The new technique allows a tiny sample to be tested directly, with no need to grow a larger sample. That reduces the chance of contamination by modern proteins.

The maiden study shows how analyzing proteins can flesh out the picture provided by DNA, Corthals says, especially since the immune response has a major impact on the course of an epidemic.

The geography of bones

Bones fascinate detectives and archeologists alike. Now, a police officer who is also a Ph.D. archeology student has applied geographic information systems (GIS) to bone structure. David Rose says he’d been “involved in forensics across the state, shooting reconstructions, general crime scenes, and that was how I ended up in grad school” at Ohio State.

While simultaneously taking anatomy and GIS classes, he decided to apply the latter to the former: “With luck, I happened to have the right set of skeletons, tools and knowledge to see the immediate connection. GIS is capable of looking at things as large as the globe, but I can load your portrait and mark the landmarks on your face.”


Blown-up gray image of bone with red computer-added dots

Courtesy David Rose
Dots in this cross-section of a foot bone mark osteons — structures that fix small cracks and maintain blood minerals. Repetitive use makes bones stronger and denser — which translates into more osteons.

Using an optical microscope, Rose has developed GIS tracking for osteons, circular growth centers in the bones that are about 250 microns across. Rose hopes the mapping software can reveal fine distinctions in occupation or history — distinguishing, for example, a mason’s hand from a farmer’s, due to their use of different tools.

Such a technique could not, however, analyze the head wound that apparently killed the skeleton found in the Leicester car park, Rose warns. “We are not necessarily catching a snapshot in time. We are catching long-term, habitual patterns.”

English archeologists have reported signs of scoliosis in the bones, and Rose proposes that GIS might look for “abnormal loading, or a long-term limp.”

Long-term participation in sports (like jousting or fox-hunting?) could also cause a distinctive pattern in bone, Rose adds. “This helps us understand human variation, and it may help us target new forensic technology that could look at the structure left behind, to make an estimate of aging, of spatial patterns over a lifetime.”

The new approach has yet to be used in detective work or to study osteoporosis, says Rose, who is still working as a captain in the Ohio State police department — and still working toward for his Ph.D. in archeology.

The politics of death


Gold mask decorated with red paint, rectangular gold pendants, and gold disks for eyes.

Credit: Xuan Che
10 or 11th century, a funerary mask from Lambayeque, Peru is made of gold with copper overlays, painted with cinnabar, a red ore of mercury. The mask is 11.5″ (29.2 cm) high. Masks like this show the burial of a rich and/or powerful person.

In archeology, the entire context of the remains usually contains clues. Is there a bloody residue on the body or garments? Did anybody wash the body after death, which signifies respect but deletes clues? Do ceremonial objects like crowns or jewels indicate high status?

Here, in the realm of choices made after the dear departed has bitten the dust, we enter what Vanderbilt’s Tung calls mortuary politics. “It’s the living who put the grave goods in; the living get to tell the story about the dead,” she says. “Especially with someone like Richard, everybody has a narrative they want to tell, and that is visible in how the burial is made, what is written, the artifacts that go in. These are all part of the story of how the living see the dead. If his conquerors were trying to muddy his reputation, they could have treated his body in a particular way.”

If the body is identified as Richard, mortuary politics will shift into high gear, Tung says. “Does he deserve state and royal honors, including burial at Westminster Abbey? It will be interesting to see how it plays out.”


Two medieval re-enactors stand at the spot that Richard III’s remains were found

Knight re-enactors “guard” the burial site of a corpse that may be Richard III, the last king of England to die in battle.

Who’s there?

Unless the subject is a forensic investigation following tyranny or genocide, or a “high value target” like Richard III, archeologists seldom seek to identify a person by name. Kings are often identified by writing or objects in the grave, which have not been reported for Richard.

Our experts think archeological probes, at best, are more likely to rule out Richard as not the source of the bones. “Identifying an individual is a difficult problem, you have to pull together the historical evidence about context,” says Schroeder. “You can narrow down some things, using DNA from the descendants, although that’s rife with problems. You can use isotopes to try to understand if this person really was raised in England. Ultimately, you might be able to eliminate that it’s Richard III, but it will probably be difficult to confirm with a high degree of certainty that this was Richard.”

When identity is known, archeological techniques can elaborate on what history tells us, says Price, the isotope expert. “We looked at some specific Mayan kings and could determine that a couple were clearly not from the place they ruled, died and were buried. It was assumed that the kings were from the tombs they were found in, but now these are called ‘stranger kings.'”

But many questions about Richard concern his behavior as an adult, and that’s a gnarly problem, says Tung. “Richard was a fascinating character; there are a lot of historical questions that people would like to address. Sadly, bioarcheology techniques are not going to address a lot of pressing question: Was he an evil villain? You can’t speak to that from the remains.”

— David J. Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; Emily Eggleston, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Links galore about The Greyfriars Project archeological dig
  2. Archeological clues written in bone
  3. All these mummies yielded DNA for researchers
  4. Inspired by the story? Here’s Shakespeare’s entire Richard III play script