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Royal grave – no parking

By Pat, 8 February 2013 News

Skeleton of King Richard III showing his curved spine.

The complete skeleton showing the curve of the spine.
Image: University of Leicester


The graves of kings and emperors: pyramids in Egypt, terracotta armies in China and … a car park in England? A team from the University of Leicester announced they discovered the remains of King Richard III under a council car park.

Typically kings are given a royal burial, but Richard III was the defeated leader in a civil war, so this honour was denied. It was unknown where he was buried after his death in 1485.

Accounts stated that his body was buried in a local church. The church was long gone, but a group of archeologists reasoned that, if they could locate the church, they might be able to find Richard.

Using old maps, they picked locations where they thought the old church might have been – including a car park. They dug three trenches in the car park, and discovered not only the foundations of the church, but also a skeleton. The skeleton was quickly and carefully removed.

The location of the male skeleton was as expected according to legend. Physical features including the slight build and curved spine matched descriptions of Richard. The skeleton also showed evidence of a number of wounds consistent with accounts of injuries inflicted in battle and after death. The pieces were falling into place.

The team also successfully extracted DNA from a tooth. They were interested in a type of DNA called mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Mitochondria are structures in cells that convert energy from food into a form that cells can use. They have their own DNA: mtDNA.

You get mtDNA from your mum. A mother will pass her mtDNA onto her daughter, who will pass it on to her daughter and so on. Sons also get their mtDNA from their mother, but if they father children, it will not be passed on.

If the remains belonged to Richard, the mtDNA extracted should match the mtDNA from a descendant of Richard’s mother – as long as there were only women in the line of descent. It just so happened they had two such descendents! The mtDNA from the three samples were compared – they all matched. However, it’s still possible that people can have the same mtDNA by chance.

None of these pieces of evidence are enough by themselves, but pieced together with further information, the team is convinced they found the remains of King Richard III.

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