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High-tech search to solve medieval mystery

Archaeologists digging at the site of a medieval

Archaeologists digging at the site of a medieval church in central England say they may have found the bones of King Richard III. This is an undated photo of a painting of the king, who was vilified in the disappearance of his two nephews. The medieval king died in an 1485 battle and his grave had been a mystery. Credit: AP

LONDON -- Archaeologists using map analysis and high-tech radar say they may have found the bones of the medieval king, Richard III. The bones, which will undergo extensive testing, are reported to be consistent with the 15th century monarch's physical abnormality and of a man who died in battle.

A team from the University of Leicester said Wednesday the bones were beneath the site of Grey Friars, a Late Middle Ages church in Leicester, central England, where contemporary accounts say Richard was buried after his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

Richard Buckley, co-director of the university's Archaeological Services, said the bones are a "prime candidate" to be Richard's. The remains are now being examined and the team hopes that DNA can be recovered to aid identification.

"We are not saying today that we have found King Richard III," Richard Taylor, the university's director of corporate affairs, told a news conference, adding that "this skeleton certainly has characteristics that warrant extensive, further detailed examination."

William Shakespeare, writing more than a century after Richard's death, described the king as "deform'd, unfinished," a monster with a deformed conscience who murdered his nephews in the Tower of London in order to gain the throne.

The murder charge is a matter of historical dispute. The official royal website says the young princes "disappeared" while under Richard's protection.

Taylor said the skeleton displayed spinal abnormalities consistent with contemporary accounts of Richard's appearance.

"We believe that the individual would have had severe scoliosis, which is a form of spinal curvature. This would have made his right shoulder appear visibly higher than his left shoulder," Taylor said.

He said the skeleton was apparently of an adult male and in good condition. There were signs of trauma to the skull shortly before death, perhaps from a bladed instrument, and a barbed metal arrowhead was found between vertebrae of the upper back.

Lin Foxhall, head of the university's School of Archaeology and Ancient History, agreed that the skeleton is consistent with some contemporary accounts of Richard but "does not fit the exaggerated picture painted by later, Tudor sources which portrayed him as a wicked hunchback."

"The individual we have discovered was plainly strong and active despite his disability, indeed it seems likely that he died in battle," Foxhall said.

Richard, the last English king to die in battle, was buried by the Franciscan monks of Grey Friars.

There is a record that King Henry VII, the victor at Bosworth Field, commissioned a memorial for Richard's grave -- in the choir, or eastern portion of the Grey Friars church -- about 1495.

Although the records pointed to a grave in Leicester, 100 miles north of London, the church was suppressed in 1538 after King Henry VIII abolished the monasteries and its location was long forgotten.

Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, visited the area in 1612 and saw a stone pillar erected in a garden on the site which was inscribed "Here lies the body of Richard III." There were tales, still repeated on the British royal site, that Richard's bones were dug up and scattered during the Reformation.

Buckley and his team identified a possible location of the grave through map regression analysis, starting with a current map and analyzing earlier maps to discover what had changed and not changed. Ground penetrating radar was employed to find the best places to start digging.

The Leicester team began excavating in a parking lot last month. Within a week they located thick walls and the remains of tiled floors.

Earlier, the university identified a direct descendant of Richard's elder sister -- a 17th great grandnephew -- and obtained a DNA swab for possible matching with any bones found at the site.

"In reality this will be a long process," said Turi King, who is leading the DNA analysis.

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