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News: DNA
King Richard III's skeleton, found at Leicester, UK.
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by Archaeology Newsroom

Over His Dead Body

Richard III's DNA study and prospective reburial stirs controversy between Leicester University and amateur enthusiasts

A group of amateur historians and medieval enthusiasts who have been the driving force behind the eventually successful quest of Richard III’s body are now raising concerns on the ongoing research of the late British ruler’s DNA by the University of Leicester.

As Richard’s DNA analysis is in progrss, a number of people involved in the discovery of his remains, including independent historian John Ashdown-Hill and dedicated Richard III fan screenwriter Philippa Langley (who actually orchestrated the dig in the parking lot where the King was found), argue that research as well as plans for the ruler’s reburial in Leicester Cathedral violate his status as a deceased king and his will to be buried elsewhere.

In a statement in Life Science,  Ashdown-Hill said: “The DNA testing will add very little to scientific knowledge, and it breaks agreements with Buckingham Palace made before the University got involved in the Richard III search”.

A member of the Looking for Richard team, which originally started the quest for the body, Ashdown-Hill had started working to sequence the mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down the maternal line, of Richard III’s living descendant in 2003. But now, as a newly announced project by the University of Leicester seeks to to sequence the entire genome of Richard III, the historian argues that further testing -besides mitochondrial DNA which was necessary to identify the King as he was buried in an unmarked grave- goes against precedent for members of royalty. His arguments hint the subject of the body’s custody, held at present by the University of Leicester but with aa judgment expected in a few weeks.

According to the amateur historian, The Looking for Richard team talked with Buckingham Palace before the University of Leicester got involved and agreed that images of any remains found shouldn’t be broadcast and that the remains should be treated with respect. The university now claims the right to continue the scientific investigation, and has already taken additional bone samples. “Even if the courts judge rules the university doesn’t have legal custody of the body, they may still continue the DNA analysis”, he adds.

In reality, the study was considered by the ethics committee of Leicester University and the university’s College of Medicine before approval and is governed by guidelines set by the Church of England and the governmental body English Heritage, according to the University.

“Her Majesty the Queen would not allow exhumation of other royal remains, or the testing of them.”, Ashdown-Hill adds reminding that the only other royal body found buried outside of Westminster Abbey (an 8 year-old duchess located accidentally in 1965), was re-buried in the Abbey without undergoing a scientific investiagtion.”It’s breaking the precedent we had in 1965, what’s going on at the moment”, he continues.

“[DNA] might tell us whether or not Richard III had difficulty in digesting milk, for example. It might tell us whether his hair was medium brown, light brown or dark brown. But is that really very valuable information?”, he asks.

According to a University statement, “King Richard III is a figure of immense historical and cultural significance, and the information that we hope to obtain from sequencing his genome will provide insights into the health and ancestry of the king and his historical environment”.

The conflict between the University and enthusiasts goes beyond DNA testing, touching the subject of the King’s  reburial. The University of Leicester was granted the exhumation license for the body, making it the institution responsible for the reburial. The plan is to rebury Richard III in Leicester Cathedral. That arrangement has sparked anger from some who claim relation to the king who’d like to see him buried in his adopted hometown of York. And even some who accept a Leicester burial are upset with the modernistic designs for Richard III’s tomb.

But what the debate is really about? Is it about the distance between science and sentiment? Is it about neutral humanistic thought versus British nationalism? Is it about ethics? Or is is part of a power game where a group of amateurs “took their passion and made it happen”, only to find out that actual scholars, performing  true research are snatching the “kudos” out of their hands? Time will tell. Meanwhile, the world will be looking forward to find out whether Richard III’s hair was brown.

NOTES
1. Live Science, http://tinyurl.com/q3a93px (25/02/2014)