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Forensics: Bog Bodies

Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Leicester announced that ancient bones found beneath a supermarket car park belonged to Richard III, who ruled England in the 15th century. But how could they be so sure? The shape and condition of the skeleton offered the first clues…

Most obviously, the mystery skeleton had a distinctly curved spine, which was the result of a condition called scoliosis. This curvature would have made one shoulder higher than the other, giving the person a slight hunch when they were alive. This is consistent with portraits and historical texts describing Richard III – the king who Shakespeare unfavourably depicted as “deformed, unfinish’d” in his play of 1592.

Richard III was the last British monarch to die in battle, killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field by multiple blows to the head. Again, the condition of the skeleton matched this account, with examination of the skull identifying several wounds made by bladed weapons. These include two injuries that would have certainly been fatal: a blow to the back of the head that had sliced away part of the bone, and another that had pierced the side of the skull.

Further analysis of the bones indicated the mystery person would have been in his late twenties or early thirties at the time of his death (Richard III was 32 when he died) and that the burial would have happened some time in the late 15th century or early 16th century, which corresponds with the king’s date of death in 1485. But while all of these facts made for a very convincing case, they were not enough to ascertain the body’s identity with absolute certainty.

The final proof came from genetic evidence. DNA samples were extracted from the inside of the bones and then compared with samples from the king’s living relatives, who had been tracked down through scrupulous research into hundreds of years-worth of family trees. Michael Ibsen, a Canadian-born furniture maker living in London, is a 17-generation descendent of the deceased king, and when his DNA was compared with the sample from the bones, a match was found. This strongly indicated the two were distantly related – which, when combined with all the other evidence, confirmed beyond all reasonable doubt the identity of the mystery skeleton.