The Hunt for a King

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Jones

Old-fashioned maps and the latest DNA tests proved the bones were Richard III's.

How do you go about identifying a long-lost medieval king? Forget CSI: Middle Ages for a second. The first thing you do is look at a bunch of old maps.

The announcement on February 4 that a skeleton lifted last year from beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, could be identified "beyond reasonable doubt" as that of King Richard III is the most exciting historical discovery of the year-maybe the century-so far.

Yet the project ultimately stemmed from a humble 31-page desk report completed in April 2011 by Leon Hunt, a member of the University of Leicester's Archaeological Services. On the cover of the report is a sepia photo of a brick wall. This was the treasure map that led researchers to the controversial king's remains. X marks the spot.

Hunt's report was the starting point of the much broader interdisciplinary work by the University of Leicester, which combined archeology, bone analysis, genealogy, and DNA sampling. All of the high technology that went into the recovery of Richard would have been useless if the team had not known, in the first place, where to look.

A quick recap. As you know from learning the colors of the rainbow: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain. Or to put it another way, he was killed at the battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485. Once dead, Richard was stripped naked, tied to a horse, and taken to Leicester, where he was displayed, abused, and eventually buried in a shallow grave at the Church of the Grey Friars.

The Greyfriars was destroyed during Henry VIII's Reformation in the 1530s. It used to be said that Richard's bones had been thrown in the nearby River Soar. Now we know they were not. But they were certainly forgotten and mislaid as, over the years, the former church land was used as private gardens, a bus depot, a school playground, and a parking lot.

To work out where the Greyfriars once stood, Hunt's report compared maps of the area dating from 1741 to today. By overlaying them, he came up with a speculative plan of the old church that suggested that the choir, where Richard would likely have been buried, would be located somewhere on what is now two parking lots.

Based on that research, and with help from the Leicester City Council and Philippa Langley, the enthusiastic if occasionally swivel-eyed member of the Richard III Society who has coordinated the project behind the scenes, the team secured permission to dig three trenches during the late summer of 2012.

On the first day of the dig, August 24, a skeleton was uncovered about two feet below the earth. …