Using Science to Solve the 500 Year Old Mystery of Richard III

One of this year’s Festival highlights is the arrival of the ‘Richard III Discovered’ Exhibition from University of Leicester in collaboration with British Council Ireland and hosted by NUI Galway. You may remember the news 5 years ago that the bones of the dead king had been discovered beneath a car park in Leicester. Now you can find out more about how science was used to uncover the mystery of the King!

 

richard III skeleton

 

The exhibition will be hosted at The O’Donoghue Theatre by NUI Galway for school visits on Friday November 24th, at the Galway Shopping Centre on Saturday November 25th as well as being at our Exhibition day on Sunday November 26th with a special exhibition and public talk by the team.

 

At the exhibition you can see Richard, in the form of a 3D replica skeleton enclosed in a glass case, with University of Leicester experts Dr Turi King and Matthew Morris from the University of Leicester, on hand to explain everything about the last Plantagenet monarch, his death in battle, and the 2012 discovery and identification of his remains.

 

Not only will members of the public have the opportunity to meet the Richard III team and find out first-hand about the momentous discovery from start to finish, there will be an array of other exhibits exploring everything from cancer cells to plasma rockets.

Children and adults alike can also take part in other interactive elements of the stand, which include:

  • Learn about the inheritance of segments of our own DNA
  • A dice game to show the probability of the skeleton found being King Richard III
  • A full suit of armour and medieval weaponry
  • Children’s fun activity sheets
  • Free wristbands to take away

 

 

DNA from the Past to the Future

 

Dr Turi King, who was head of the international research team investigating the DNA of the last Plantagenet monarch, originally had an email from lead archaeologist Richard Buckley asking for assistance in regard to a project regarding someone quite famous thought to be buried in central Leicester, but cautioning that he could not disclose who it was.

 

“My aunt is a Ricardian so I wrote back and said, ‘is this Richard III?’ And he said, yes it is, but don’t worry, we’re never going to find him, so it’ll only take half a day of your time.” However, it turned out that on the very first day of the dig, the very first remains found had tell-tale signs: battle injuries, scoliosis, an age at death of somewhere between the late 20s and early 30s.

 

It became what Turi calls a “missing persons cold case” which was calling out to be solved.

 

Turi and the DNA team worked to confirm the identity of the skeleton through finding people with the appropriate mitochordial DNA, that conveyed solely by females, and the Y chromosome, the exclusive preserve of the male gender. Two suitable people were found, of matrilineal descent from Richard’s sister: Canadian Michael Ibsen and New Zealander Wendy Duldig. Mitochordial DNA was found to match.

 

While DNA is one among several strands that confirmed the identity of the remains of Richard III, these strands also led to further fascinating work including ascertaining Richard III’s eye and hair colour by doing genome sequencing.

 

Richard-III-facial-reconstruction-2This meant the team were able to create a facial reconstruction, in the light of DNA evidence about the colour of Richard’s eyes and hair. There are no portraits of Richard III painted during his lifetime; the earliest came at least 25 years after his death.

 

A test of 11 different genes, that influence hair and eye colours, has however already shown that there’s a 96 per cent chance of Richard III having had blue eyes, and 77 per cent that he had blond hair.

 

Richard III as well as being a historical cold case mystery is also going to be the first known individual whose genome has been sequenced. He had scoliosis (the hunchback) and Dr King says that a few studies recently that have found genes that might predispose somebody towards scoliosis. Once Richard III genome goes online, it’s something that anyone studying scoliosis might find interesting…that’s the marrying of historical and genetic information.

 

 

Why Kids Will Love This

richard iii exhibition

 

“It’s a great detective story and a really good way of showing how science can be applied to real-life problems. The kids seem to really enjoy seeing the skeleton – I think because most kids will never have seen one (albeit a fake one) before’ says Dr Turi King.

 

In this exhibit, you will discover how science was used to find and identify the king who’d been lost for 500 years.

 

After his death in battle in 1485, the precise location of Richard III’s grave had been lost. An archaeological survey in 2012 under a council car park found the friary where he was rumoured to lie, and excavated a skeleton with a characteristically curved spine and battle injuries.

 

Science was used to explore and examine the information to solve the mystery:

  • Studies of the bones revealed the skeleton’s age, gender and deformity
  • Carbon-dating confirmed the timeframe as well as showing that Richard’s diet was heavy in meat and fish.
  • State-of-the-art CT scans helped to reveal details of his wounds, from which medieval weapons experts took clues.
  • And genealogists tracked down living descendants of Richard’s family who donated DNA samples for geneticists to analyse.
  • However, in spite of Shakespeare’s portrayal, there’s no sign that Richard had withered arms or limped.

 

Combining all the information, the evidence is overwhelming that the skeleton under the car park is that of Richard III – the last King of England to die in battle.

On Friday 24th November Mather Morris, (of University of Leicester) archaeologist from the GreyFriars project will present a talk at 4pm entitled ‘Richard III, the King under the car park’.

As well as school visits, the ‘Richard III Discovered’ Exhibition will be available for public viewing at Galway Shopping Centre on Saturday 25th November as well as our Exhibition day at NUI Galway on Sunday 26th November. There will be rotating public group visits from 10:00-16:00 with 20 people in each group. Each group will have 20 minutes at the exhibition.

Tickets will be available free of charge online from Saturday 18th November at galwayscience.eventbrite.com.

 

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