Thursday, 14 February 2013

Richard III

I know, I know I'm late with this post. This news has been out for over a week! But hey, I've been doing my dissertation. We can swap if you'd like.

So, they've found Richard III, last of the Plantagenets. And by "they" I mean "those lovely archaeologists over at the University of Leicester". But how do they know it's him, anyway? Surely one skeleton looks a lot like another? Even if it does have scoliosis.

The folks of UoL put out a brief press statement, which you can read in full here. It says there's a "wealth of evidence, including radiocarbon dating, radiological evidence, DNA and bone analysis and archaeological results". But how can that evidence tell us who someone was?

The first thing we need to know is that Richard III wasn't just on ordinary person. We have lots of historical documents describing him, though some (Shakespeare, I'm looking at you) have always been thought to be inaccurate. Because of our historical knowledge, we can say: "[The skeleton] had unusually slender, almost feminine, build for a man – in keeping with contemperoneous accounts". We also know Richard suffered from scoliosis, which is very easy to spot, and we can look for other details that coincide.

Scoliosis is a twisting of the spine, easily observable in this image.

Since Richard was the defeated king, we can expect him to have been killed violently, and the skeletal pathology matches that. While natural causes and most illnesses leave no marks on the skeleton, violent wounds often do, and this skeleton bore fatal injuries to the skull, recorded by pathologists. He also had "humiliation injuries" and may have been tied, both of which also showed up in the pathologists' report.

You can just about make out a large crack in the skull, running from the nose to the jaw. In the first image, you can see the other gash in the top of the skull. 

The state of the body in the grave is another giveaway: this body wasn't in a shroud or a coffin, and had been dumped into a shallow grave.

Before his death, Richard engaged in activities that also allow us to identify him. In the report, they note that he ate a lot of meat, and in particular fish. This would not be surprising if he lived on the coast, but as a body discovered in the midlands, we can assume he was wealthy if he ate fish. But more importantly, how do we know he ate fish?

Keep calm, it's about to get technical. The UoL release says they used "radiocarbon dating" to find this out. I'm convinced this has to be a typo, otherwise I've literally no idea what they mean. We'll assume it's a typo, however, and that they were actually using stable isotope analysis.

So, everyone knows the human body is made of nitrogen (and other elements like carbon), right? If you didn't, you do now. Nitrogen exists in two isotopic forms: N14 and N15. These number just mean the atoms have different weights, though they're both nitrogen. The percentage ratios of these in the body are determined by the percentage ratios of the nitrogen you consume: i.e. your diet. With me so far? Here's the really cool bit: the nitrogen ratios of aquatic plants and animals is markedly different to the ratios of land based plants and animals, so if you have a high sea food diet, your nitrogen ratios are different! Archaeologists then measure these ratios, and can thus partially reconstruct your diet! Stable isotope analysis can be applied to some other elements (strontium and oxygen come to mind) and can tell us about where you lived.

All of this together seems strong, if circumstantial. How many wealthy men with small statures, scoliosis and violent, undignified deaths can there have been? On the other hand, we've so far not proved it's Richard, just some guy who shared many of his unfortunate attributes.

This is where DNA testing comes in, though we won't have been able to sequence a full genome from the bones (since DNA is a very long molecule, it doesn't survive completely intact for very long. I'm afraid that bit in Jurassic Park where they use fossilised DNA is pretty much bunk). However, we should have been able to get quite a bit from his skeleton. Enough to match DNA with a high probability of success, anyway. Genealogists then tracked down two relatives, via maternal line (easier to trace, as everyone has an X chromosome) and matched them to his DNA. This is where it's handy that Richard was a historically documented figure: it's much easier to find relatives if you know which line of gentry you're looking for.

It's pretty safe to say, therefore, that we really have successfully discovered Richard III.

And now, introducing an all new blog feature...

Burns Throughout History #1

This section will preserve tales and anecdotes about people sassing each other, throughout history. This week, we're looking at Athanasius and Arsenius, both Christian bishops at the Council of Tyre. Athanasius had been accused of cutting off Arsenius' hand for heresy, and indeed the grisly trophy had been displayed to the council. Arsenius' followers demanded Athanasius be punished. Athanasius responded:

"He caused Arsenius to be introduced, having his hands covered by his cloak. Then he asked them "Is this the man who has lost a hand?"... [they agreed]... Athanasius, turning back the cloak of Arsenius on one side showed one of the man's hands... afterward he turned back the cloak on the other side and exposed the other hand. Then addressing himself to those present, he said "Arsenius, as you see, is found to have two hands. Let my accusers show the place thence the third was cut off"."


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