Richard III – A Right Royal Scientific Synthesis Recipe

By Brigid Gallagher 11/02/2013

My text and email has been alive the past weeks.  “You must be really fascinated”, ” WOW, is it cool!”, “Have you been watching news”.

What has it all been about?  Richard the III of course!

The coolest thing about this?

Is that the use of a well know person or family can drag archaeology and heritage out of the past and into the future, and todays  reality.  The biggest curse of heritage is that people cant see the point of doing it, hearing about it, accommodating it in today’s society.  A story like Richard III cuts through all of that.

A story about a royal immediately gives flesh to the subject.  You see the paintings, read the text (even Shakespeare’s version), can visit the castles, the churches, and the carpark if you fancy it.  It is tangible.  On the outside it feels as though anybody, anytime, can make a discovery like this!

Most skeletons excavated in the UK never have a name.  The report reads “‘Joe or Jane Doe’, lived a long time ago…probably this time based on the ‘other’ information/features found during the excavation (he style of the pottery, the method and imagery on the painted glass windows, the direction of the burial etc).  Most of the time their statistics are recorded along with their probable age range, gender and any evidence of disease of lifestyle on the bone, and reburied.  In the past they were probably put in a box and taken to a storeroom for later study, maybe.

This story, with the science DNA analysis brings gives credibility to a story that really is just about people at the end of the day…ok a rich and powerful one, who may or may not have been really evil and murderous, with the appearance of a hunchback…but a story that connects many NZers back to the ‘motherland’ and its royal associations, and is all about the celebs or ‘it’ people of the past.  What girl has not wanted to marry a Prince, and be a Princess at some point?

This story at its heart is about a lot of people, all producing layers of information that can be brought together to tell a whole story, that society can relate to.  And like most projects there was probably a whole lot of leg work done by enthusiasts well before the archaeologists, University and tv companies got involved.

But once they did get involved…well this is my interpretation of the Royal scientific synthesis recipe used in the finding of King Rich:

Before you start the mixing:

Do your reading, know the story, further the research, then locate a skeleton from under a car park in Leicester;


1. record the size, profile and position of the grave cut

2. draw the position of the skeleton and any other burial elements (coffin nails, shrouds etc)

3. discuss the fit of the skeleton in the grave cut, and the condition (even neatness) of the grave itself

4. conclude on who did it and how the body would have been buried.


1. Record the detail in the bones (were missing body parts contemporary with the life of the person or occur post burial, aging and gender evidence etc)

2. Record evidence of physical stress and disease/illness on the bone, like scoliosis

3. Compare the historic documents/images of potential candidates with the information from the skeleton

4. Discuss, discuss, discuss

5. Conclude on the person/family the skeleton is most likely to originate from


1. Sample the skeleton, in this case the teeth and femur

2. Trace possible direct descendants, using peerage information, and the female lines (for the mitochondrial DNA)

3. Sample the DNA of the possible descendant

4. DNA analysis……

….Months later


1. Report the findings….

2. Give a face to the person (through facial reconstruction techniques for example)

3. Allow time for critique, positive and negative to occur

4. Wait to see if there is an increase in funding available for DNA analysis to connect with people today, an increase in media attention given to archaeology and an increase in tourist visitors to the associated places.

….Months later


Report the findings in a peer reviewed journal – confirmation to critics and peers the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed.


Use the information and the story to maintain PART 4, point 4 above into the future.

If the story of Richard the III invigorates the interest of society, funders, institutions and next LOTTO winner in heritage projects then that makes for a very tasty outcome to me!

You can hear some of my thoughts on this on Radio NZ <iframe src=”″ width=”100%” frameborder=”0″ height=”62px”></iframe> 

0 Responses to “Richard III – A Right Royal Scientific Synthesis Recipe”

  • So, I’m still confused about what might possibly have led them to consider even _testing_ to see whether it was Richard III. Do I need to do more in-depth reading?

    • This is one of the gripes the archaeological establish keep alluding too…this was a media set up and they essentially knew it was King Rich before all the DNA hype. Personally, who cares!?all big projects have lots of investment of time, energy and costs before they ‘go official’ or get the final results. And even if they knew it was Rich III from the off …. again, who cares, media is always spinning a story out or focussing on public friendly bits. And then there are some who are a bit annoyed that DNA analysis took the glory…when really it was a synthesis of many sciences…hence my comments.

  • Brigid,

    I’d like to have seen a more ’rounded’ presentation by media too, if for no other reason than focusing mostly on the DNA testing promotes the CSI-type infallible DNA test thing again… Y’know, the we found strand of hair here and 5 minutes later we know it’s the ugly mug down at 666 Wayward Street 🙂 Seriously, I’m sure people realise there’s a little more to it than that, but it’s not helpful focusing on one part as if that’s the single “key”.

  • Grant,
    Agreed, DNA analysis and other analytical types that provide raw data, generated from a data source is always an easy thing to convey to the public, media and professionals…but what often gets missed is that most analysis comes with an error factor, a range or is skewed by the quality of the sample. As one media report said…the DNA results are good for being Richard III WHEN seen together with the other information revealed through the excavation and analysis by archy’s, oesteo-archys, etc. I am looking forward to the peer reviewed article that will show the quality of the m-DNA used and the results of the other descendants that have been discovered.

    In saying this Grant…it is really frustrating when reading/watching news/historic docos etc when the experts hmmm, ahhh, maybe, possibly…there are times when is good to punt for the best option. Public just need to be aware that they are watching a story unfold, listening to a real journey…and the project maybe a wee way off the final conclusions, which may only be about the microns and the millimetres…which only the scientists may be hung up on.