Experts say DNA analysis supports their claim that the bones dug up last year under a parking lot in the English city of Leicester are the last mortal remains of England's King Richard III.
"It's the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester that beyond reasonable doubt the individual exhumed at Greyfriars in September 2012 is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England," Richard Buckley, the project's lead archaeologist, said during a Monday news briefing in Leicester.
The project used 21st-century forensic science to solve a 500-year-old mystery surrounding one of William Shakespeare's best-known villains. Shakespeare's play, "Richard III," made the king out to be a scheming monster who killed children to get to the English throne. The bard gave Richard III dramatic lines that are still evoked today, ranging from "the winter of our discontent" to "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
In real life, Richard III's battlefield death in 1485 marked the end of England's Wars of the Roses, a decades-long conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster. Tradition held that he was buried in the choir of Leicester's Greyfriars Church, but the precise location of his remains was lost in the mists of time. Some even speculated that Richard's bones were thrown into the River Soar during Henry VIII's reign.
It was only in the past few years that archaeologists have been able to zero in on the location of the Greyfriars site again. Last year, a team led by the University of Leicester excavated a city parking lot and found a wealth of intriguing evidence — including a skeleton with a battle-scarred skull and a spine that was curved due to scoliosis. There was no evidence of a coffin, a shroud or clothing that was buried with the body.
All those clues suggested that the skeleton could have been that of the historical Richard III, but to firm up the connection, scientists put the bones through genetic tests, radiocarbon dating and more detailed osteological analysis.
"The skull was in good condition, although fragile, and was able to give us detailed information about this individual," University of Leicester archaeologist Jo Appleby reported Sunday in a news release. During Monday's news briefing, Appleby said experts identified 10 injuries to the bones, including eight wounds to the skull and "postmortem humiliation injuries." Such wounds are "highly consistent" with the accounts of Richard III's death, she said.
"Historical sources tell us that Richard's body was stripped," hacked and put on public display after the battle, Appleby noted.
The skeleton's relatively delicate structure was consistent with descriptions of Richard III's physical appearance, University of Leicester historian Lin Foxhall said.
Buckley told journalists that the position of the hands suggested that they might have been bound together. Initially, the team reported that an arrowhead was found among the bones, but Buckley said a closer look determined that the object was a nail that was apparently mixed in with the remains.
Radiocarbon dating showed that "the individual could have died in 1485," Buckley said. Two tests yielded dates possibly ranging from 1455 to 1540.
The team's genetic analysis reinforced the link to Richard III: DNA was extracted from bone samples and compared with modern-day mitochondrial DNA from two direct descendants of Richard III's family, including an anonymous donor as well as Michael Ibsen, a Canadian-born cabinetmaker who is a 17th-generation descendant of Richard III's eldest sister, Anne of York.
"The DNA evidence points to these being the remains of Richard III," said Turi King, a geneticist at the University of Leicester. She said additional DNA tests were still in progress.
Genetic matches based on mitochondrial DNA aren't as clear-cut as, say, a paternity test — but a mismatch would have ruled out any family connection. Similar techniques were used to identify the remains of Czar Nicholas II and other members of Russia's royal family, who were killed in 1918 during the Russian Revolution.
A documentary about the Leicester project, "Richard III: The King in the Car Park," is to be aired by Britain's Channel 4 on Monday night. But this isn't the end of the story. For one thing, the results announced on Monday will have to go through review and publication in scientific journals. The announcement also could lead to a reassessment of Richard III's reign, which some historians say wasn't nearly as terrible as Shakespeare made it out to be.
"I think this could be the moment where Richard III's reputation actually turns," British historian Andrew Roberts told NBC News. "This could be the moment where we look at his achievements and the positive aspects of Richard III, and don't just see him as one of the old Dark Ages kings."
And then there's the matter of reburying the remains: Authorities said the skeleton would get a proper interment in Leicester Cathedral, not far from the parking lot where it was found. The cathedral's canon chancellor, David Monteith, said planning for an interment ceremony in 2014 has already begun, and he expressed the hope that after more than 500 years, Richard III "may come to rest in peace, and rise in glory."
More about the search for Richard III:
- PhotoBlog: Reconstruction reveals Richard III's face
- Skeleton was almost destroyed in 19th century
- Dispute erupts over skeleton's future resting place
- Hunt for king's grave turns up garden
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.