Step by step: the Science of the Search for Richard III

Posted by pt91 at Nov 19, 2012 05:20 PM |
An overview of the scientific tests being carried out on the human remains found at Grey Friars

On the face of it, the scientific analysis of the human remains found in the search for Richard III might appear very much like a television crime drama.

Forensic pathologists, DNA researchers and bone experts will study the remains for clues about the identity and cause of death of the individual – much like you might see in CSI.

But in reality, the process is much more complicated, lengthy and rigorous than anything you might catch on TV.

Academics have set out a lengthy programme of tests for the skeleton which would make the examination schedule of a Medicine Degree look like a holiday to-do list.

The aim is to explore a wide range of techniques to identify the individual, as well as to find out as much as possible about the person’s lifestyle – including his health and where he grew up.

Below is a step by step guide to the analysis.

· After the remains were exhumed, soil samples were taken from the grave and from around the skeleton which may provide information about the burial practice and its environment together with information related to health and diet of the person.

· The skeleton has been given a computed-tomography (CT) scan which will allow scientists to build up a 3-D digital image of the individual. From here, they hope to reconstruct the individual’s face, in a similar way to the images created of King Tutankhamun following CT scans of the 3,000-year-old mummy.

· Samples of dental calculus - mineralised dental plaque, which sometimes builds up around teeth - will be taken from the skeleton to help the scientists find out more about the person's diet, health and living conditions.

· Further samples have been taken from the teeth and a long bone so that ancient DNA can be extracted and compared with that of Michael Ibsen, believed to be a descendant of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York via the female line.

· But extracting the DNA from these samples is not straightforward, as even the act of breathing on 500-year-old remains can cause the sample to be contaminated with modern DNA.

· While the testing of modern DNA from Michael Ibsen is being carried out at Leicester, the extraction of DNA from the skeleton is taking place in partnership with “ancient DNA” testing facilities which will allow the sample to be tested safely, without risk of contamination.

· The skeleton is also being radiocarbon dated by two separate labs, which should indicate - to within 80 years - the date the individual died.

· The skeleton has now been cleaned, and is currently being examined in detail in an attempt to ascertain the individual’s age, build and the nature of its spinal condition.

· Particular attention will be paid to the trauma to the skeleton which may have been incurred in battle – including the injury to the skull. Specialists in medieval battles and weaponry are advising the team on the kinds of instruments that may have caused the damage.

· Forensic pathologists at the University’s East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit are also working with the team and are involved in helping to determine the cause of death.

The University of Leicester, in association with Leicester City Council and the Richard III Society, is leading the Search for Richard III.

The Search for Richard III is also the subject of a Channel 4 documentary being made by Darlow Smithson.

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