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Medieval remains under parking lot hold key to England’s Richard III
Agence France Presse
Men dressed as medieval knights pose at a site researchers believe could be Richard III’s final resting place.
Men dressed as medieval knights pose at a site researchers believe could be Richard III’s final resting place.
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LONDON: Archaeologists and one hopeful relative are anxiously waiting to see if a skeleton dug up from a hole in a parking lot in the English city of Leicester is the remains of the much-maligned King Richard III.

More than five centuries after he was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field by the armies of Henry Tudor, later King Henry VII, scientists believe they are close to making an identification.

Michael Ibsen, a 17th generation nephew of the king, will have his DNA tested against the remains found in the humblest of settings, but which could prove to be the burial place of the last English monarch to fall in battle.

Ibsen, who was born in Canada and moved to London 27 years ago, said: “The only line that they were able to follow through to current times was the line that leads to my mother.”

The DNA testing is expected to be completed by December at the earliest.

“Obviously it would be a great disappointment if there is no DNA match, but fingers crossed. We’ll wait and see,” he said.

Experts have long thought that Richard III was laid to rest in Leicester in the church of the Franciscan Friary, or Greyfriars, after he was killed in battle in 1485.

However, stories dating to the 17th century said that Richard’s remains were dug up after the friary was dissolved and were then tossed into a local river.

For years, inaccurate maps and conflicting local legends obscured the trail, but this year archaeologists were finally able to narrow down the search after they found clues to the location of the church where Richard is said to have been buried.

The cloisters leading to the middle of the church was one giveaway, while a masonry bench indicated a chapter house.

“Many people hadn’t really thought too much about whether the remains could actually still be here after all,” said Richard Buckley, co-director of University of Leicester’s Archaeological Services.

When Buckley’s team descended into the trenches under the parking lot’s tarmac, what they found was beyond their wildest dreams.

After only three weeks on site, a short stint compared to most excavations, the archaeologists found the bones of an adult man lying in a plain, simple grave.

“We can tell from the state of the skeleton that the burial was made shortly after death, and the body was not moved later,” said Jo Appleby, lecturer in human bio-archaeology at the university.

“It seems to have been a careful burial, but not an elaborate one,” Appleby told AFP.

Scientists have already established that the skeleton showed at least two injuries on the skull, a wound on the back and curvature of the spine.

“He has what seems to be injuries consistent with a death in battle which we know is what happened to Richard,” Appleby said.

“However it’s a burial in a medieval church, and medieval churches usually have multiple burials in them so it is always possible that we have not found the right individual.”

Time has been of the essence in solving the puzzle surrounding Richard, because the mitochondrial DNA that will be used for testing is only passed along the female line.

While Ibsen and his brother have the DNA link desired by archaeologists, only their sister would be able to pass it on to an 18th generation – but she is without children.

Michael Ibsen hopes that identifying the king’s remains could help rehabilitate his reputation. After all, Shakespeare portrayed him as a power-obsessed hunchback who murdered his nephews to steal the crown.

“Let’s face it, one would rather be related to somebody who is famous for doing nice things rather than being a barbaric murderer, which is how he is portrayed in Shakespeare,” Ibsen told AFP.

“I personally think he has been badly portrayed, but I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 16, 2012, on page 13.
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