April 21, 2013 at 12:17 PM ET
The tale surrounding the discovery of King Richard III's skeleton beneath an English parking lot is about much more than a pile of 528-year-old bones — all you have to do is look at the face of Philippa Langley as she breaks down during an archaeological autopsy.
"I don't see bones on that table," she says, during an emotional scene in a new documentary about the king's remains. "I see the man."
Langley, a 50-year-old Scottish screenwriter, plays almost as big a role as the much-maligned monarch in "The King's Skeleton: Richard III Revealed." The show airs Sunday night on the Smithsonian Channel in the U.S., after racking up royal ratings on British TV. It was Langley who enlisted the Richard III Society to help jump-start the excavation, and she serves as the on-screen witness for many of the key twists in the excavation.
Based on an analysis of the historical records, archaeologists from the University of Leicester obtained a license from the British government to dig into that parking lot next to Leicester Cathedral last year. "The King's Skeleton" traces each step in the CSI-style investigation, leading to February's conclusion that the bones were indeed the mortal remains of the last Plantagenet king.
Richard III reigned for only two years, but his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 was a key moment. In fact, many historians consider his fall to mark the end of the Middle Ages in England. A century later, William Shakespeare's play immortalized him as one of literature's greatest villains.
One of the themes of "The King's Skeleton" centers on how Richard III may have gained a blacker reputation than he deserved. The way Richard III's fans see it, the successors to the throne from the House of Tudor had an interest in making their Plantagenet forebears look bad — to the point of portraying Richard III as a misshapen hunchback. "This is propaganda," historian Pamela Tudor-Craig says during the documentary.
So the truth comes as a shock to Langley.
"What we're actually seeing here is that this skeleton in fact has a hunchback," Jo Appleby, a bone expert at the University of Leicester, tells her in one scene.
"No!" Langley answers.
The identification of Richard III's remains drew upon carbon dating and detailed studies of the skeleton, including evidence of wounds that matched up with historical accounts of the king's demise. But the weightiest evidence comes from analysis of DNA extracted from the skeleton: The chemical signature of the mitochondrial DNA matched up with two maternal-line descendants of Richard III's eldest sister, Anne of York.
Does this mean the case of Richard III is closed? Not yet. Mitochondrial DNA is not as precise an indicator as, say, a paternity test. "The DNA evidence is simply a single strand within the entire analysis procedure," Turi King, the University of Leicester geneticist who conducted the analysis, told NBC News on Friday. "You certainly wouldn't convict somebody on [the basis of this] DNA evidence."
However, King noted that the mitochondrial DNA signature for this particular skeleton is shared by only a few percent of Europeans. "It's quite a rare type, so that adds to the weight of the evidence," she said.
The next step will be to analyze the skeleton's Y-chromosome DNA, which is passed down from father to son. The Y-chromosome signature is far more precise than mitochondrial DNA, which all children get from their mother. Four paternal-line descendants of Richard III's family have already been identified and tested, and King is now waiting to do the much more complicated reconstruction of the skeleton's Y-chromosome DNA signature.
Working on the royal remains has been a "dream project," King said, but not without its drawbacks: "It's been very stressful. You're trying to work quite quietly and calmly. The pressure to make sure everything has been done properly has been intense. ... I feel like I'm still in the middle of it."
The license to work with the skeleton runs out next year, and King will have to finish up her DNA studies by then.
Meanwhile, a potential legal battle is looming over whether the remains will be reburied in Leicester Cathedral, as planned, or in York instead. Thankfully, that's one drama King and the other scientists involved in the Richard III mystery won't have to deal with.
"I just try to tune it out," she said.
More about the Richard III saga:
To tune in "The King's Skeleton: Richard III Revealed," check your cable provider's TV listings or consult the Smithsonian Channel's website. Britain's Channel 4 aired the show as "Richard III: The King in the Car Park."
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.