British archaeologist Jo Appleby has spent her career digging up skeletons, from the Bronze Age bones of unidentified peasants to Richard III, who was reburied with great ceremony in Leicester last week. The remains of the English king, slain on a battlefield in 1485, were found beneath an asphalt parking lot in 2012. Appleby was part of the University of Leicester team that figured out how the king had died: His skull was pierced by a sword and he was struck by a halberd (a combined spear and ax). She spoke with The Post on Skype.
Have you read Shakespeare’s “Richard III”?
I haven’t read it from start to finish, but I’ve read bits of it. It reflects a political view of Richard III, and it doesn’t seem to physically reflect Richard as he was. Shakespeare talks a lot about the fact that Richard was physically deformed. But when we look at the skeleton, the scoliosis [curvature of the spine] would have been fairly minor. One shoulder would have been higher than the other, but it would have been well hidden by the style of clothes at the time. It wouldn’t have been obvious.
Did Shakespeare exaggerate Richard’s deformity?
He was writing his plays for a Tudor court. [Richard was the last king of the House of York.] Richard was on the losing side; it doesn’t make sense to be nice to the guy on the losing side. One way is to say he was physically abnormal, which at that time was an indication that you were a bad person. He also might have been going on physical descriptions after his death. When you look at contemporary sources, historians make more mention of his deformity. It might have been Shakespeare being politically expedient, or using others’ work who were being politically expedient.
How did the reconstruction of Richard’s skeleton work?
We took the whole skeleton and subjected it to CT analysis. It’s like a big X-ray. After the scan, you end up with a document that allows you to be able to print a 3-D replica of the whole skeleton and take the bones of the spine and work out a way to put those together again. We created models of the disks that go between the vertebrae. There were arthritic changes where the bones articulated, and we can be really precise to put the skeleton together and get an accurate view of what his spine would have looked like in real life.
Is it like “CSI” with high-tech stuff, or is it more bone assembly?
The high-tech was the taking of the CT scans. Loughborough University took CT data and rendered it into 3-D printed images. Then it was me and Piers Mitchell, another osteologist, and an orthopedic surgeon and an imaging specialist. We sat down together and spent some time reconstructing it to make sure everything was in the right place.
How did you figure out the weapon used on a hundreds-of-years-old skull?
We had already identified a whole series of sharp-force injuries on the skull. We knew there was an injury on the base of a skull, with a sword or a halberd. We wanted to work out the angle of the injury. There was also a cut mark on the first vertebra of the neck. We were able to see when we looked very closely there was a tiny mark [left by the tip of the weapon] opposite where the sword or halberd spike had gone in. We saw the exact end point. We can tell it came from under the base of the skull toward the back.
Also, how strange was it to find this particular skeleton under a parking lot?
As archaeologists, we are used to finding skeletons outside the context of where the person lived, but to find a skeleton of such historical significance was a very odd thing indeed.
How did you figure out who it was?
We suspected it because it was evident that this was someone with a lot of injuries. We knew Richard had died in battle. We could see the curve of the spine and we had a pretty good suspicion. We also did a study that looked at mitochondrial DNA that comes down in the egg from mother to their children. The mitochondria are bits in the cells that are the energy powerhouses. It’s a series of genes. You have lots of copies in each cell. Only females can pass it on. Richard would have had his mother’s mitochondrial DNA (mDNA).
His sister, too. This mDNA was passed along from mother to child until the present generation, where we have two individuals — who were related to Richard — who gave us mDNA samples. Their mDNA samples were identical to the mDNA found on the skeleton.
How do you feel about the reburial [March 26 in Leicester Cathedral]?
I’m feeling like it’s a wonderful way to finish the project. A lot of people expect I would be desperate to hang on forever. We’ve learned so much about Richard, it feels right that he should have a proper cathedral burial and he should be laid to rest.
And how did you become an osteoarchaeologist?
I decided to study archaeology as an undergraduate. I was a third-year student and studied some animal bones and wanted to do a bit more. I studied for my master’s degree with both animal and human bones. But I decided that human bones are more interesting. Then I did my PhD.
Did you dig up stuff in the back yard or at the beach as a kid?
I was fascinated with archaeology at a young age. My brother and sister complained that I was in a museum for hours. My parents are not scientists, but they took me to museums. Today, a lot of my work concentrates on the Bronze Age, from 4,000 to 3,000 years ago. I’m interested in the way they interacted with dead bodies. It’s different than what we do now. There is evidence they disarticulated bodies, reinterring and removing parts or putting them back in the ground. There are all sorts of strange ways that people related to the body. This knowledge was useful in the search for Richard. When we found the feet were missing, we realized that the feet hadn’t been chopped off during the battle. It happened a long time after he went into the ground.
How long did it take to look?
It was first suggested in 1983. But the search for Richard didn’t start until the early 2000s. When we started digging in 2012, he was the first thing that was found. He turned up two hours after digging.
Niiler is a freelance science writer based in Chevy Chase.