Leicester skeleton is Richard III’s, leading archaeologist insists

All evidence points to the Leicester skeleton belonging to Richard III, archeologist Mike Pitts has said.

In an exclusive interview with History Extra, the editor of British Archaeology insisted that, taken together, the DNA testing, radiocarbon dating and damage to the skeleton prove that the remains belong to the former king.

“Cumulatively, the evidence makes a very convincing case,” he said. “We cannot be 100 per cent certain that it’s him. There has to be – in any historical situation – an element of doubt.

“But sometimes we recognise that the doubt is so small that it’s insignificant. For all practical purposes, we can say that the skeleton is Richard III’s”.

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Copyright University of Leicester

All evidence points to the Leicester skeleton belonging to Richard III, archeologist Mike Pitts has said.

In an exclusive interview with History Extra, the editor of British Archaeology insisted that, taken together, the DNA testing, radiocarbon dating and damage to the skeleton prove that the remains belong to the former king.

“Cumulatively, the evidence makes a very convincing case,” he said. “We cannot be 100 per cent certain that it’s him. There has to be – in any historical situation – an element of doubt.

“But sometimes we recognise that the doubt is so small that it’s insignificant. For all practical purposes, we can say that the skeleton is Richard III’s”. 

His comments came in response to doubts about the identity of the Leicester skeleton, raised by Michael Hicks, head of history at the University of Winchester, and Martin Biddle, archaeologist and director of the Winchester Research Unit. In interviews with BBC History Magazine, the pair raised concerns about tests carried out on the skeleton, and called for field records to be made publicly available.

Reacting to their comments, Pitts, a leading archaeologist and the author of a new book about the search for Richard III’s grave, told History Extra: “We need to look at the bigger picture, and that’s something I think Hicks and Biddle fail to do.

“If you were to take just the DNA, or just the radiocarbon dating, or just the location of the grave, then no one of those, I think, is going to be sufficient to prove the identity of the remains. You cannot build up a strong case with even two or three of these strands of evidence.

“But if you add everything together, and there are many quite different types of evidence, it all points to the skeleton being Richard’s.”

Considering the radiocarbon dating, which dates the bones to the period of Richard’s death, but covers a period of 85 years, Pitts said: “The radiocarbon date range is still relevant, because it excludes a vast number of individuals – and of course, what it doesn’t do is suggest the body was not Richard’s. It’s the right 85 years.

“And the skeleton is a male, of the right age to be Richard. This in itself does not prove it’s him, but it’s consistent with it being him. Likewise, the scoliosis seems to fit quite precisely with what we know about Richard’s condition. And the reconstruction of his face matches near-contemporary portraits of him.

“Plus, the wounds found on the skeleton are distinctive. They are quite different from wounds suffered by men who died at the Battle of Towton, whose remains have also been examined by archaeologists.

“As a group, the Towton men look like soldiers: nine of the 28 had healed skull traumas from earlier conflict. When they died, many of their wounds were to arms and hands, where they had tried to defend themselves from attack.

“The Leicester skeleton, by contrast, has no healed wounds – the man had either not fought before, or he had worn armour that only the very wealthy could afford.

“He was killed by savage blows to the back of the head, yet there are no signs that he defended himself. The killing was more like an execution than the frenzied slaughter of Towton.

“And finally, texts say Richard died from blows to the head. A contemporary poet actually says a Welsh soldier ‘shaved his head’ – a fair description of what could have caused one of the skeleton’s wounds.

“The DNA alone can not prove that the remains belong to Richard, but it’s hugely supportive evidence. I think Hicks overestimates the number of people it could relate to. The DNA is quite precise, and is backed up by so much other stuff.

“When you take all these things together, there’s far too much [evidence] to be a coincidence.”

Discussing the field records, which Biddle has called to be made publicly available, Pitts said: “I quite understand that Biddle wants to see more evidence from the excavation, but to be fair to Leicester it’s less than two years since the excavation, and just over a year since they confirmed the identity of the skeleton. In archaeological terms, it does take time to analyse these results.

“And while I appreciate Biddle’s concerns about the mechanical digger [Biddle claimed that the lower legs of the skeleton were hit and moved by a digger], in reality damage to the bones was trivial – the skeleton’s feet had been dug away long before the archaeologists got there. This was a highly competent excavation. It was a great excavation. 

“Even if the remains had been hoiked out of the ground completely, we would still be where we are now. That would not have made us doubt whether the skeleton is Richard’s. All the key information we have about the individual’s identity – age, physique, gender, DNA, diet, scoliosis and wounds – would still have been there.

“And to be fair to Leicester, I would suggest that no one has actually said the skeleton is 100 per cent, set in cast iron, Richard III. At a press conference, Richard Buckley said it was Richard, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. He did not say ‘with 100 per cent certainty’.

“There will always be a degree of reservation, but that’s very small. In the real world, we can say that the remains are Richard’s.”

Responding to Pitt’s comments, Michael Hicks told History Extra: “Mike Pitts presents the familiar archaeological case very well. He identifies a series of criteria that are met by Richard III, but each can apply to others.

“The combination is impressive, but not definitive. Richard remains the most likely candidate, but possibilities or probabilities are not to be confused with certainties. An absence of evidence does not equal no evidence.

“‘Beyond reasonable doubt’ is insufficient if conclusions about Richard are to be drawn from this skeleton.”

Meanwhile Martin Biddle, referring to Pitts’ suggestion that “Everything … points to the skeleton being Richard’s”, said: “This is premature.  We do not have peer reviews of the DNA results. The Carbon 14 dates, age and damage could apply to anyone killed in battle at the time. 

“The documentary evidence for Richard’s burial is not strictly contemporary, and refers only to Richard: such sources characteristically omit reference to people of lesser importance.

“Why does the grave not lie on the centre-line of the choir, the appropriate position for a special burial? Does this reflect hasty interment without shroud or coffin in too short a pit? If so, let us see detailed evidence for the pit’s shape, and the horizontal and vertical position, and attitude of the body within it.

“As for scoliosis, the photograph of the skeleton in the April issue of BBC History Magazine is misleading: the layout is anatomical (represents the skeleton rather than the position of the body in the ground) except for the curve and spacing of the vertebrae.

“What would it look like if the vertebrae were anatomically positioned? The body could be Richard’s, but to claim ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that it is his is not justified by the evidence available.”

Digging for Richard III: How Archaeology Found the King by Mike Pitts, published by Thames and Hudson, is now on sale.

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