Technology fit for a King

Feature from Loughborough University's The View research magazine

It is a discovery that has captivated the nation and been dubbed by some as the UK’s most important archaeological find ever.  Had the remains of the last King of England to be slain in battle really been found buried under a council car park in the centre of Leicester?

Earlier this year the University of Leicester announced to the world’s media that the skeleton unearthed by its team of archaeologists was that of Richard III, whose final resting place had remained hidden for hundreds of years.  In a unique project working with colleagues at Leicester, Loughborough University’s 3D printing experts are creating a replica of the King’s skeleton.

Although he only ruled for two years – from 1483 to 1485 – Richard III stands out among his peers as one of the most famous, or infamous, Kings of England.

On 22 August 1485 he was killed at the battle of Bosworth, bringing to an end both the Plantagenet dynasty and the Wars of the Roses.  His body, stripped and despoiled, was brought to Leicester where he was buried in the church of the Franciscan Friary, known as the Grey Friars. Over time the exact whereabouts of the Grey Friars became lost.

Following extensive research by the University of Leicester, in partnership with Leicester City Council and the Richard III Society, archaeologists were able to locate the former Grey Friars site and so began the search for the fallen King.  Incredibly, the excavation uncovered not only the friary – preserved underneath a council car park – but also a battle-scarred skeleton with spinal curvature.

To ensure as much information about this historic discovery can be preserved for future generations, experts from Loughborough’s School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering were invited to make an electronic reconstruction of the King’s skeleton, and then a physical replica using the latest 3D printing techniques.

Professor Russell Harris, head of the University’s Additive Manufacturing Research Group, is leading Loughborough’s involvement in the project.  “Working with the University of Leicester on this unique endeavour has been incredible,” he said.  “As soon as we were approached about being involved we knew it was an opportunity not to be missed – this find has literally rewritten the history books.”

Professor Harris is a world leader in the use of Additive Manufacturing – also known as 3D printing – for medical applications.  The process allows physical objects to be built directly from 3D computer-aided-design (CAD) data without the need for tooling and with minimal human intervention.  Professor Harris has investigated many medical uses of the technologies, including creating complex skeletal models for use as training aids by the country’s leading NHS surgeons.

“Clearly this assignment was a little different to what we normally do,” Professor Harris explains.  “It was the first time we had worked with a skeleton of such an age, but we were confident we could replicate it using our latest cutting-edge machinery.”

To begin the process the team were sent CT scans of the actual remains taken by the Leicester Royal Infirmary, where they were transformed into a 3D computer model.  Laser sintering was then used to create a physical replica of the King’s skull. This technique uses a high power laser to fuse small particles of materials, in this case plastic, into a mass that has a three-dimensional shape.

“Generating the first 3D computer models was a very exciting process,” Professor Russell Harris added.  “To see the skull of Richard III emerge from the powder of the laser sintering machine in physical form was a jaw dropping moment.  It was quite clear to see a number of the significant injuries that he had sustained in battle.  Recording these various aspects of the remains, in both electronic and physical form, will be invaluable for future studies.”

Richard Buckley, from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, led the search for the King’s remains.  He has praised the work of Professor Harris and his team, naming Loughborough as an ‘exemplary partner in this project’.  He added: “We were indeed fortunate that our neighbours at Loughborough University had an established Additive Manufacturing Research Group with an international reputation for expertise in 3D printing.

“This process has not only assisted us in our scientific investigation, but has also provided a resource for future generations of researchers to examine long after the King’s remains have been reinterred.  Most importantly, this remarkable process has captured the imagination of the general public who continue to be fascinated by this representation of a past King and levels of engagement and interest in the whole project have soared.

“I believe that this is a great example of the benefits which accrue when different disciplines pull together and apply their specialist skills to a shared project. Loughborough University’s long history of collaboration with other academic institutions and industry made them an exemplary partner in this project. Their technical contribution was invaluable and their willingness to support the wider team in promoting public awareness of the find was hugely beneficial. This project has been unique in the impact it has had on the public’s engagement with history, archaeology and science.”

The replica skull is now on display as part of Leicester City Council’s exhibition – ‘Richard III: Leicester's Search for a King’ – at the Guildhall.  Record numbers of visitors have already been to the exhibition, and queues continue to form daily.

Laura Hadland, Senior Curator for the Leicester Arts and Museums Service, said: “The model has really enhanced our visitor’s experience in the exhibition.  Having a 3D physical model to examine at close quarters has helped people to understand the size, shape and scale of the weapons trauma Richard III suffered. It is a real aid to understanding how the King’s remains were identified and complements our giant interactive touchscreen which details Richard’s key pathologies.”

Professor Harris and his team are now working on replicating the rest of the King’s remains.  The full skeleton will form another focal point of the permanent visitor centre that the Council is planning to open in Leicester, incorporating the site where Richard III was found.  This is due to be completed in 2014.

“Working with all those involved in this incredible discovery has been a privilege,” Professor Harris said.  “I am delighted that our expertise has been able to help create a lasting legacy to Richard III.”

Richard III Revealed from andy weekes on Vimeo.

This article originally appeared in Spring/Summer edition of The View magazine.

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