Don’t panic, the car park skeleton is almost certainly Richard III

Now is the winter of our disbelief. Gareth Fuller/PA

Controversy over Richard III’s alleged resting place in a lonely Leicester car park has recently erupted after two eminent academics claimed it could not be said with any confidence that the skeleton in question belonged to the contentious king. I could almost hear the groans ricochet around the world – the most exciting piece of recent historical news, now deemed void? But let’s backtrack a bit to assess these conflicting claims.

In September 2012, the University of Leicester announced their excavations had located the site of the medieval Church of the Grey Friars. This was followed a couple of days later by the news that a skeleton had been discovered, buried in what would have been the choir of the church; this was also within the garden of the later mansion that had stood on the site of the medieval church.

Accounts of the death of Richard III stated that he was buried in the choir of the church. There had also been a memorial stone in the garden of the mansion marking the location of the dead king’s burial. And the skeleton appeared to have a crooked spine, just as Shakespeare’s character was described. So it seemed very likely that the excavation had discovered the remains of Richard III himself. The press release urged caution over the identification until the DNA work had been completed, but the news was greeted with a great deal of excitement.

Then in February 2013, the results of the DNA analysis were announced – it was indeed Richard III, with the DNA having been matched to living relatives whose genealogies had been rigorously checked. Something very rare in archaeology had happened: an individual known to history had apparently been identified.

Richard III is one of the best known medieval English kings, largely because of his status as a murderous uncle. His Shakespearian line “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” has been learnt by generations of schoolchildren, while his name is part of a mnemonic to remember the colours of the spectrum. Now we could look upon the mortal remains of the man who may have killed the princes in the tower, who staked his crown on a battle at Bosworth Field and who lost the battle, the crown and his life.

So the recent uproar in the press at the story that the skeleton found in September 2012 might not be that of the unfortunate Richard of York was understandable. Professor Hicks of the University of Winchester and Professor Martin Biddle, emeritus fellow of the University of Oxford, had told BBC History Magazine it could not be said with any confidence that the skeleton was Richard III.

But the University of Leicester had been very confident indeed in their pronouncements, and the result was a tidal wave of press coverage. There is an important lesson here in why it is a bad idea as an archaeologist to make categorical statements. None of the evidence that we produce is immune from criticism, and that includes DNA.

So what are the arguments? Hicks and Biddle pointed to a series of problems with the identification. The DNA is not an exact match. And the radiocarbon dates are not exact (radiocarbon dates never indicate a particular year, the result is always a range of dates). They also mentioned that Richard was never described by his contemporaries as having a crooked back. Professor Biddle raised further concerns about the amount of disturbance to the grave during the excavation itself.

These are all valid points, and the University of Leicester issued a counter-statement in response. This emphasised the fact that the identification was made on the basis of a range of evidence, all pointing towards Richard III.

So, who are we to believe? Is it Richard of York or not? It is true that the DNA match between the skeleton and the modern descendants of the bloodline is not perfect; there is a high probability that the skeleton comes from the same matrilineal descent, but so too would a lot of Richard’s contemporaries. The match certainly does not tell us that this is definitely Richard.

And then the radiocarbon dates point to a date a bit earlier than 1485 which requires special pleading over the effect of his diet on the decay of the isotopes for them to be late enough for Richard’s death; again, not a particularly convincing argument. It is also quite clear that the first accounts of Richard having a deformity come after his death. Accounts in his life made no mention of it.

But it is also important to note that none of this can be said to prove the skeleton is not Richard. In particular, the deformity of his skeleton would not have looked like a crooked back, instead he probably had one shoulder higher than the other. Richard or no, he was clearly killed in battle from this damage to the skeleton.

Leicester University also point to the historical evidence that this is the church, and that the particular location of the burial was in the choir, which is where we are told that Richard was buried. The facial reconstruction carried out by the University of Dundee, experts in such reconstructions and whose work is normally in a judicial context where accuracy is critical, produced a reconstruction from the skull that looks very similar to contemporary portraits.

The DNA does not prove the skeleton to be Richard, but it does show that if this is not Richard, it was a close relative who somehow was buried in remarkably similar conditions having suffered a remarkably similar fate. The result is that we cannot say with 100% certainty that this is his skeleton, but on the balance of probabilities, it seems most likely that these are the remains of Richard III.