Osteoarchaeologist Dr Jo Appleby gives key evidence on the skeletal analysis
What information could be gleaned from the Greyfriars skeleton itself?
Below is an account from Dr Jo Appleby, Lecturer in Human Bioarchaeology at the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History.
In carrying out the skeletal analysis of the Greyfriars skeleton, we had to answer three main questions. Firstly, did this skeleton fit with the known facts about Richard III – his age, sex and physical appearance? Secondly, what was the nature of the scoliosis and could we tell anything about how it had affected him in life and thirdly, what could we tell about the wounds we had identified, and were there any more?
The analysis of the bones has been very much a team effort, and we have been collaborating extensively with colleagues both in the University and in other institutions.
The skeleton is mostly well preserved and substantially complete. There are two small areas of excavation-related damage to the skull; because the skull was in an unusual position within the grave it was struck during excavation, but this has not caused major damage and has not complicated the analysis of the cranial trauma. There is also some damage to the bones caused by the five hundred years that it has spent buried. The feet were truncated at an unknown point in the past, but a significant time after the burial.
The analysis of the skeleton proved that it was an adult male, but with an unusually slender, almost feminine, build for a man. This is in keeping with historical sources which describe Richard as being of very slender build. There is, however, no indication that he had a withered arm – both arms were of a similar size and both were used normally during life. The skeleton is that of an individual aged between the late twenties and late thirties. We know that Richard III was 32 when he died, and this is entirely consistent with the Greyfriars skeleton.
We have used measurements of the long bones to produce an estimate of height, but this is complicated by the presence of the scoliosis. Without the spinal abnormality, the Greyfriars skeleton would have stood roughly 5’ 8” high. This would have been above average height for a medieval male; however, the curve in the spine would have taken a significant amount off his apparent height when standing. We cannot be sure how much this would have been, but it would have been substantial.
The analysis of the scoliosis took place with together with Professor Bruno Morgan of the University of Leicester and Dr Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge. This showed that the Greyfriars skeleton had a condition known as idiopathic, adolescent onset scoliosis. The word idiopathic is a complicated medical term for a simple fact – the cause of the scoliosis is unclear. What we do know is that this individual was not born with scoliosis but that it developed after the age of ten. The condition would have put additional strain on the heart and lungs, and it may have caused pain, but we cannot be specific about this.
Finally, I would like to discuss the evidence for trauma on the skeleton. This has been identified using a variety of imaging techniques that have allowed us to look at the bones in different ways. The analysis has involved Professor Sarah Hainsworth and Richard Earp from our Department of Engineering, Professor Guy Rutty, Professor Bruno Morgan, Alison Brough and Claire Robinson from our East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit and University Radiology Imaging Units and Bob Woosnam Savage from the Royal Armouries, Leeds. We are also grateful to the University of Bradford Biological Anthropology Research Centre, who allowed us to carry out comparative analysis with skeletons of individuals who died in the 1461 Battle of Towton.
In our press conference in September we discussed two possible wounds on the skeleton. We have now identified ten wounds. Eight of these are on the skull, whilst two are elsewhere on the body. All of the wounds have characteristics that identify them as perimortem, i.e. occurring at or shortly after the time of death. They could not have been inflicted after the burial of this individual and none could have been caused by damage during excavation.
Because none of the wounds overlapped, it is not possible to say for certain the order in which the injuries were received, but we can make certain speculations on the basis of what we know about medieval warfare. I will discuss each of the injuries briefly, making clear the degree of certainty of our conclusions in each case.
In September, we said that we had identified a small penetrating wound on the top of the head. Analysis suggests this was caused by a direct blow from a weapon rather than by a projectile such as an arrowhead. This injury would not have been fatal.
The second wound that we discussed in September was a large wound to the base of the skull at the back. We said that this might represent a ‘slice’ cut off the skull by a bladed weapon. Our work has now shown that this was indeed the case. We cannot say for certain exactly what weapon caused this injury, but it is consistent with something similar to a halberd.
A smaller injury, also on the base of the skull, was caused by a bladed weapon which penetrated through to the inner surface of the skull opposite the entry point, a distance of 10.5 cm.
Both of these injuries would have caused almost instant loss of consciousness, and death would have followed quickly afterwards. In the case of the larger wound, if the blade had penetrated 7 cm into the brain (which we cannot determine from the bones), death would have been instantaneous.
A further three wounds have been identified on the outer surface of the vault of the skull. These are shallow wounds, highly consistent with where the blade of a weapon such as a sword or halberd has shaved off a small area of bone. These wounds would not have been immediately fatal, but could have caused death through blood loss if left untreated for a long period of time.
In addition to these, there is a small rectangular injury on the cheekbone. Again, we cannot be certain what caused it, but it would be consistent with a dagger. The weapon that caused this injury pierced the cheek and came out the on the side of the face. If inflicted during life, this wound would not have been fatal.
Finally on the skull, there is a cut mark on the lower jaw, caused by a bladed weapon, consistent with a knife or dagger. Again, if inflicted during life, this wound would not have been fatal.
It is hard to understand how any of these injuries could have been caused if this individual had been wearing a protective helmet. We therefore speculate that this had been lost by this stage in the battle. The injuries to the jaw and cheek are particularly interesting in that they are less severe than injuries to the face seen in other medieval battle victims. This has led us to speculate that they may reflect attacks on the body after death, although we cannot confirm this directly from the bones. Examples of such ‘humiliation injuries’ are well known from the historical and forensic literature and historical sources have suggested that Richard’s body was mistreated after the battle.
The two wounds on the postcranial skeleton are also likely to have been inflicted after armour had been removed from the body. This leads us to speculate that they may also represent post-mortem humiliation injuries inflicted on this individual after death. The first of these is a cut mark on a rib. This blow did not penetrate the ribcage. During the battle the ribcage would have been very likely protected by elements of plate armour (a backplate) which could not have been pierced by a blow such as this. Historical sources tell us that Richard’s body was stripped after the battle. This would have left his back exposed to attacks such as this.
The second postcranial injury is located on the right pelvis and is highly consistent with being a blade wound from a weapon, perhaps a knife or dagger, which came from behind in an upward movement. Detailed three-dimensional reconstruction of the pelvis has indicated that this injury was caused by a thrust throughthe right buttock, not far from the midline of the body. Again, during the battle this area would have been protected by armour which would have made it difficult for an injury such as this to be inflicted. Historical sources suggest that Richard’s naked body was flung over a horse after the Battle of Bosworth before being carried back to Leicester. Whilst we can never be certain of what happened, if so this would have provided an ideal opportunity for a wound such as this to be inflicted as a symbolic act of humiliation to the body.
In conclusion, the skeleton has a number of unusual features: its slender build, the scoliosis and the battle-related trauma. All of these are highly consistent with the information that we have about Richard III in life and about the circumstances of his death. In addition, this individual was a man around the age of 32. Taken as a whole, the skeletal evidence provides a highly convincing case for identification as Richard III.