Analysis fit for a King - Richard III gets the NIGL treatment

On February 4th 2013, the University of Leicester announced that the human remains uncovered beneath a Leicester car park in August last year are ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ those of King Richard III.

Dr Jo Appleby (university of Leicester) &
Dr Angela Lamb (NIGL/British Geological Survey)
examine the skull of Richard III
Second premolar of Richard III split in half

Professor Jane Evans (NIGL/British Geological Survey)
preparing tooth for analysis

One week after the press conference we were shown to a secret location at the University of Leicester by Dr Jo Appleby (School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester), who led the exhumation of the remains.  The University agreed to allow us to take small samples of bone and teeth from the skeleton in order to further investigate the King’s diet, movements and exposure to pollution.

Sampling the bones and teeth

Once inside the clean room laboratory we were shown a rather ordinary cardboard box that contained the skeletal remains, and were able to examine the bones and assess their condition.  After a discussion about which bones and teeth would be the most helpful to our investigation and equally which would cause the minimal damage to the skeleton, we agreed to sample a small piece of rib bone, a small piece of femur bone (thigh bone) and 2 teeth.  Then came the rather nerve-wracking task of removing the pieces of bone with a dental drill (we have a portable dental drill for such circumstances!) and then very gently extracting two teeth from the skull without causing any damage to the remaining teeth or cranium, which thankfully we can say we did (apart from the damage to our rather fragile nerves!).

What we do

Here at the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, part of the British Geological Survey, we can measure tiny differences in the composition of elements such as oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and strontium.  These elements become incorporated into teeth and bones, and the measurements provide us with information about a person’s diet, and childhood environment.  The process involves the carefully cleaning of samples, the chemical extraction of the elements and then the measurement of their isotope composition using a machine called a mass spectrometer.  Once we have the results we can interpret them to find out about life in the past.

Progress so far

At the moment  we are  putting the pieces of bone and teeth, collected from Richard III, through various chemical extraction procedures.  This will  purify the elements in which we are interested so that we can  examine Richard’s diet over his lifetime; where he resided and may have travelled;  and enable us to look at the environment in which a Medieval King was raised.

More to this space for updates on the progress of the laboratory work.
by Prof Jane Evans and Dr Angela Lamb