The identification of a long-dead king is not simply an academic event.
Headline writers and bloggers dusted off their copies of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare this week to gleefully report the identification of the skeleton of King Richard III, found beneath a car park in the English midlands. The fascination with Richard, the last king of the Plantagenet line and the last English monarch to fall in battle, goes beyond the known facts of the historical record; Richard is known as much as the misshapen villain of Shakespeare’s play as the man who ruled until his violent death in 1485.
The king’s mortal remains were identified by a mixture of science and history. The skeleton was male and about the right age, and radiocarbon dating suggests that he died around the end of the fifteenth century. Death was due to a forceful blow to the back of the head with a sharp blade, consistent with a sword or a fearsome medieval weapon called a halberd. He ate a high-protein diet containing plenty of seafood, so was clearly of high status. The spine was twisted, a sign of adolescent scoliosis, providing some basis for Shakespeare’s deformed monster. The corpse was mutilated after death. It was found in the right place. And analysis of mitochondrial DNA from the bones matched samples taken from two descendants of Richard’s family — the Canadian-born furniture maker Michael Ibsen and a second royal relative who chose to remain anonymous.
If that person chose to conceal their identity to avoid a media fuss, then they certainly made the right decision. The unveiling of the findings by researchers at the University of Leicester, UK, who found and investigated the remains, at a press conference on Monday morning, led news bulletins and was immediately scrutinized and argued about online. Prominent historians scoffed at the media scrum and dismissed the academic significance of the find. Others accused them of jealousy and snobbery — would a similar discovery announced with equal fanfare by the University of Cambridge or Oxford face such hostility, they questioned?
Even some of those who praised the work could not resist bestowing a patronizing pat on the head, and pointed out that little old Leicester was enjoying its day in the Sun. (They may or may not have heard of DNA fingerprinting, which was developed by Alec Jeffreys in the same department of genetics that investigated the car-park skeleton.)
Certainly, the way the discovery was announced, the introduction of DNA evidence without the backing of a peer-reviewed paper, and the fact that there was a television documentary primed and ready to go will leave a sour taste in the mouth of some purists. The University of Leicester has managed to unite the two cultures of science and humanities in a way that few have before. “Science by press release” cried some scientists. “History by press conference” complained some historians.
They should get out more. The discovery of a 500-year-old slain King of England is an event that goes beyond the boundaries and the conventional audience of academia. The DNA evidence may be impossible for outsiders to verify until a paper is published, but molecular sleuthing alone will never be able to confirm the identify of the bones with total assurance anyway. And, given the strength of the other evidence, it does not need to. “There are lots of us out here who’ve been intrigued by and researching this for years and years,” one historian responded to an online critic. “This is really exciting for me — it’s kind of the 15th century’s Higgs Bosun [sic] moment.” Let them enjoy it.
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Body of evidence. Nature 494, 6 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/494006a