Science or celebrity? The ‘discovery’ of Richard III

On the 24th of August 2012 the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council, in association with the Richard III Society, began a search for […]
King Richard III cropped

Artwork by Thao Do

On the 24th of August 2012 the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council, in association with the Richard III Society, began a search for the remains of King Richard III of England. Using a series of historical maps, the experts involved were able to locate the Church of the Grey Friars, the location where Richard’s body was supposed to have been buried in 1485 after the Battle of Bosworth. On 12th September it was announced that a skeleton found within the church might be that of Richard III. Aside from the body being that of an adult male, its location within the church indicated that it must have been an important person, and the skeleton demonstrated severe scoliosis of the spine that matched historical descriptions of Richard III as a ‘hunchback’. Furthermore, osteoarchaeological analysis revealed an arrowhead embedded in the spine and injuries to the skull that again corresponded with historical descriptions.

On the 4th of February 2013, the identification of this skeleton was publicly confirmed as King Richard III. This was based on mitochondrial DNA evidence that can, in certain cases, be analysed for familial similarities. This method relies on the identification of certain portions of mitochondrial DNA sequences found in a skeleton that show extreme variance between individuals and can be used to discern related individuals within a population. On top of this evidence, the physical characteristics of the skeleton were considered to be highly consistent with contemporary accounts and depictions of Richard’s appearance. This announcement brought considerable media interest from across Britain, as well as worldwide, with some calling it “the greatest archaeological discovery of all“. Indeed, the seemingly successful treasure hunt certainly does evoke images of Harrison Ford raiding the Temple of Doom, returning with the glittering object he set out to find. However, does this find tell us more about a worrying willingness in our society to uncritically accept ‘discoveries’ and ‘science’ when an exciting story of celebrity is at stake?

Firstly, there has been remarkably little media coverage about the problems involved with the scientific identification of the skeleton. The osteoarchaeologists themselves remained reticent at every stage regarding the identity the skeleton. The curvature of the spine could be scoliosis or it could be the result of a skeleton lying in a small pit for the last half a millenium. Furthermore, the ‘arrow’ was later found to be a Roman nail dislodged from something beneath the skeleton. Similarly, the proximity of the Battle of Bosworth to the site means that perimortem injuries of the skull would be expected on any individual involved.

A lot therefore rests on the interpretation of the mitochondrial DNA. Ancient DNA analysis is notoriously difficult given the potential for modern or environmental contamination, the limited number of copies preserved, and potential difficulties in measuring and identifying regions of difference. The fact that the University of Leicester does not intend to publish the mtDNA results should perhaps make one suspicious of their scientific validity. Finally, the physical characteristics of the facial reconstruction mean relatively little in terms of specific identification. This is not to say that the skeleton is not Richard III, but the lack of critical debate is somewhat unerring.

So why have none of these concerns been vocalized publically? We British are well known for our desire for a ‘good story’. This is demonstrated in this particular case by Channel 4’s “Richard, King in the Car Park” documentary. This programme covered the process of discovery and identification. Star of the show was Philippa Langley, a leading member of the Richard III Society. Her emotional investment in finding Richard may seem somewhat out of place in what we might consider ‘science’ but it certainly shows the investment that can be placed in finds of this sort. This enthusiasm reached its peak when Philippa suggested to the osteoarchaeologist on duty that a Yorkist Flag should be laid across the skeleton, much to the extreme discomfort of the latter.

However, this emotion does not stop at the individual level. Prior to the discovery, Leicester Cathedral had between 40 and 50 visitors a day. Since September this has increased to between 500 and 1000, and is likely to increase again when the skeleton is reinterred in the cathedral in May 2014. Furthermore, the physical reconstruction of the skull is currently on display at Leicester before moving to the British Museum in London later in the year. As a result, tourists from a variety of countries will flock to see the head that may or may not be that of Richard III.

This could perhaps lead one to question whether archaeology is definitive enough to be considered a science. However, the problem demonstrated here has the potential to reach into the more traditional sciences and centres on an important question – who owns science? The Channel 4 documentary focused on the debate as to whether Richard III lived up to his description as an evil, miserly hunchback and concluded, largely thanks to the emotive words of Philippa Langley, that this “was not the face of a tyrant.” This is indicative of a willingness to control a narrative totally disconnected from the scientific data supposedly presented. Similarly, distant relatives of Richard III have brought a case to the High Court of the United Kingdom, wanting the body to be buried in York rather than at Leicester Cathedral. This has, in turn, caused protests on the streets of York. While this problem could be dismissed as an inherent problem of archaeological subject matter, we are, in general, often too quick to take up a fitting story backed up by ‘science’ and often ignore the lasting political, legal and emotional implications. This time it was a question of celebrity; the next time uncritical scientific acceptance could have wider-reaching and more sinister results.

About Patrick Roberts