Sunday, March 30, 2014

Will the Real Richard III Please Stand Up?

All this back and forth and back and forth "Where is he to be buried?" stuff and now we are in a more serious debate: Archaeologists say they "are not in a position to say with any confidence" that Richard III's bones are really Richard III's bones. 

Head of history at the University of Winchester, Michael Hicks, and Archaeologist and Director of the Winchester Research Unit, Martin Biddle, are more than skeptical. They are questioning the DNA testing, radiocarbon dating and damage to the skeleton because the team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester has failed to make their excavation field records public. Hicks believes that the skeleton could belong to one of Richard's many cousins through the 16 children born by his grandmother. He further argues the remains could belong to any victim from any of the battles fought during the War of the Roses, not just the Battle of Bosworth. After all, radiocarbon data will only date a body to a given era, a period which could cover 80 years.

Furthermore, Professor Biddle, emeritus fellow of medieval archaeology at the University of Oxford says “While some evidence has been presented in peer-reviewed journals, it’s the field records from the dig we need to see.” I asked in a letter to The Times in 2012 for details about the shape and size of the grave pit but, as far as I know, this material is still not in the public domain. The skull was damaged during the excavations, and was later replaced more or less where it seemed to have been. Yet it is a cardinal rule of burial excavation that everything is left in position until the whole body has been uncovered. And, while the excavators say the feet were removed by an undefined Victorian disturbance, anyone viewing the Channel 4 documentary on the dig will see that the lower legs were hit and moved by a mechanical digger. We also know very little about the graves in the east end of the church. How many burials were made there in the three centuries of the friary’s existence, and indeed after the battle of Bosworth? Without further excavation there is no way of knowing, and hence no certainty about the burial that it has been claimed was that of Richard III. Before all this goes any further, it would be wise to be certain the body really is his. Something akin to a coroner’s court should be set up to consider all the evidence.”

Those that are standing by Richard III's discovery, are responding:

Philippa Langley, who commissioned and paid for the excavation, says, “Taking a sceptical view is good for vigorous debate, but to say it cannot be claimed ‘with any confidence’ that this is Richard is quite puzzling. Given the totality of the evidence, it can surely be said with considerable confidence. Hicks says that there may have been ‘lots of people with similar wounds’: perhaps he could name one who fits the bill?”

A spokesperson from the University of Leicester says, “The identification was made by combining different lines of evidence. These include the fact that the location of the grave matches the information provided by John Rous [medieval English historian], and that the nature of the skeleton – the age of the man, his build, injuries and scoliosis – is in agreement with historical accounts. Biddle suggests that the skeleton’s feet were damaged during the dig, but as they were not in the grave when we found it there must have been a prior disturbance. The radiocarbon dating places the skeleton to the period of Richard’s death, and while the nature of his burial and grave is highly unusual for Leicester at the time, it fits with the known facts. Two direct female-line descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne, were also found to share a rare mitochondrial DNA type with the skeletal remains. The strength of the identification is that different kinds of evidence all point to the same result. Hicks is entitled to his views, but we would challenge and counter them. Our forthcoming papers will demonstrate that many of his assumptions are incorrect. Our field records are also set to become available, as is normal procedure.”

Professor Lin Foxhall, head of the archaeology and ancient history department at the University of Leicester and the historian on the Richard III team, says, "The identification of Richard III is not based solely on the DNA, radiocarbon and scoliosis evidence, but on a combination of many different lines of evidence, which analysed and evaluated together, all point in the same direction. Most of the possibilities raised by Professor Hicks have been considered and eliminated, and the radiocarbon dating is sufficiently precise to ascertain that the burial is not one belonging to a much earlier period in the life of the friary. We anticipate that these will address the issues raised by Professor Hicks and Professor Biddle, and if not they are, of course, at liberty to write academic papers presenting the evidence to support their views – that, after all is the purpose of academic debate, and how knowledge moves forward! We will make as much of the data as possible openly available in due course, but, as is normal academic practice, not until our research is fully published."

Image sources: History Extra

When are the conspiracy theories going to come out? The University of Leicester wanted to be in history books so they planted a fake body and hired fake scientists to provide fake scientific analysis. That's it…

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