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Digging Up Bones: The Discovery of King Richard III

Digging Up Bones: The Discovery of King Richard III

In a place called Bosworth Field on the 22nd of August 1485, Richard III, King of England, was struck down in the last battle of the War of the Roses. With his death, the Plantagenet dynasty ended, and the Tudor dynasty began. King for only two years, Richard III was hastily buried in a grave dug out of floor of Greyfriars Friary. He was not completely forgotten.

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A vague description of Richard III’s final resting place was recorded, and the site was marked with a monument carved in alabaster and marble. William Shakespeare immortalized the martyred king in a play of the same name – creating a permanent, if unflattering, tribute to his memory. But the wheel of time turned on; the Friary was demolished, and the monument was lost to history. Local legends confused historical events while inaccurate rumors were recorded as facts, often misleading researchers for generations. Much was forgotten.

It was not until 2012, some 527 years after the death of Richard III, that archaeologists with the University of Leicester Archaeological Services discovered the location where Greyfriars Friary once stood. There, sitting mostly intact and remarkably well-preserved in hastily-dug grave, archaeologists found what have been confirmed to be the remains of King Richard III. The slain king, unceremoniously stuffed in a grave too small and buried beneath the friary’s floor, was discovered during the excavation of a parking lot.

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The discovery of Richard III’s battle-scarred remains, arguably the greatest archaeological find of the 21st century thus far, ignited conversation about history and provided a showcase for the marvels of modern science. DNA analysis aided researchers in verifying that the remains were those of Richard III by comparing samples from the remains to those of living descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. The age of the bones was determined using chemical isotope analysis, mass spectrometry, and radiocarbon dating. Soil analysis, a battery of additional chemistry tests, and craniofacial identification techniques were also among the many methods employed to identify the remains and learn more about their owner.

But it is history and not science which commands the spotlight with this discovery. Richard III died a violent death and ended a royal dynasty, a bloody event saturated in historical significance. The Richard III Society, which has driven and funded much of the recent research related to the last Plantagenet king, is “dedicated to reclaiming the reputation” of Richard III, who has largely been portrayed in a negative light by Shakespeare and others in the centuries since his death. With this discovery comes the solution to many mysteries surrounding the events on and after August 22, 1485, but also an invitation to revisit the stories and illustrations about the owner of these remains—perhaps allowing for the reclamation of reputation lost to the intended and unintended revision of history.

While Queen Elizabeth II declined to hold a royal funeral, Richard III was interred in Leicester Cathedral on the 26th of March 2015 in a manner much more dignified than his first interment. Yet while this new interment may mark the place of final rest for Richard III, the excavation of the Greyfriars Friary has provided researchers with additional mysteries to solve.

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Randal A. Burd Jr. is a freelance writer, educator, and poet from Missouri. He is also a Kentucky Colonel and a genealogy enthusiast.

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