King Richard III remains confirmed, via press conference, not paper

We’ve been following this story of the potentially finding of the remains of King Richard III. Now we have word. Of course, it comes with a bit of doubt attached. It was science by press conference. Not the best idea…

Archaeologists unearth Richard III : Nature News Blog.

This morning, archaeologists at the University of Leicester, UK, announced that a body uncovered last September in a car park was in fact that of the famous king Richard III. The team revealed its find at a morning press conference, along with new photos of the body, which was found on the site of a long-buried medieval church.

The team supplied a bevy of evidence in support of its claim. The most visible sign was scoliosis of the spine, a deformity immortalized in Shakespeare’s unflattering portrait of the king. But researchers cited other pieces of evidence including the location of the burial, the fact that the body had apparently suffered numerous wounds, carbon dating and mitochondrial DNA.

Sounds impressive but…

Leicester’s winter made glorious by Richard III – opinion – 04 February 2013 – New Scientist.

What’s interesting, however, is that the results have not been through any kind of peer-review process. The funding seems to have been largely privately sourced, with a tranche from the British commercial TV station Channel 4, which is airing a special programme tonight about the project and its findings.

What was missing from the announcement was any indication of how common such mtDNA sequences might be in western European populations. The failure to take such considerations into account can lead to basic errors such as what happened several years ago, when it was claimed that Mesolithic Cheddar Man had a descendant in the person of a history teacher living near where the remains were found. The public (and the media) are easily persuaded by DNA evidence, so these are the remains of Richard III.

So, yes, it sounds very promising but the case is not as tight as it could be. And, these problems can be fixed. We should provisionally accept this claim but wait to be certain when it matures a little and goes through the properly gauntlet.

Addition: This piece is in the Guardian addressing the questions about science by press conference.

The “king in the car park” story has proved irresistible for the media. The discovery of the body of Richard III is a huge coup for archaeologists at Leicester University who can be rightfully proud of their find. But the way it’s been reported raises some uncomfortable questions about news values and history.

Charlotte Higgins has blogged that it’s all about “impact”, the dreaded pressure on academics to demonstrate public engagement with their work. But it’s also about the media and what news organisations want to print, promote and broadcast. Can you really blame universities for picking out those bits of their research that will interest the press, and putting them out there in the most media-savvy way possible?

While this study seems to be rather well done, it does raise the issue that “academics with less well-grounded findings will be bounced into talking them up if they’re considered newsworthy.” And that could be a problem.

Richard III

Richard III

  12 comments for “King Richard III remains confirmed, via press conference, not paper

  1. February 4, 2013 at 4:14 PM

    I’m looking at converging lines of evidence at this point. DNA in a skeleton found at the site within the remnants of the church he was buried in–this…looks decent. If they had found the skeleton elsewhere, this would be really suspect. This seems a lot more convincing than, say, the “Jesus’ wife” fragment at this point, but I, of course, look forward to seeing it published and reviewed.

    Also, there is apparently a Cheddar Man. Why is this not front page news?

  2. bshistorian
    February 4, 2013 at 4:44 PM

    The DNA is just one aspect. I share your concerns about media leading ahead of publication, but that seems to be the way things are going – I’m sure publication will be forthcoming. The documentary does at least make clear that it’s very, very likely that this is Richard, mtDNA or otherwise.

  3. February 4, 2013 at 4:45 PM

    It’s a man made of cheddar, people! It totally blows my noodle! Could there have been an ancient cheddar race in Britain? Scientists have confirmed that cheddar man was found impaled on a broccoli spear.

    Thank you.

  4. spookyparadigm
    February 4, 2013 at 6:33 PM

    Where would you publish it? I’m not saying you couldn’t find a place. But whereas in ye olden dayes, archaeology papers commonly were reports, now the expectation is that a significant chunk of a given archaeology paper (unless it involves archaeometry) will have a theoretical component. Which would be what, in this case?

    My understanding is that this is part of a larger project, so I’m sure they’ll come up with something. But when you have discoveries of great public interest, the “peer review!” call becomes problematic. Not because it shouldn’t be peer reviewed. But because the priorities of academic publications are not those of the larger public, when it comes to archaeology.

    Bob mentions the Jesus tomb claim. Who would publish it? Even if the evidence was a lot more solid, it would be seen as a sensational claim. There would be companies falling over themselves to publish it as a trade book, but as an academic article (I do believe some of the statistical work on it was published), much of the criticism of it would be that the topic is sensational.

  5. spookyparadigm
    February 4, 2013 at 6:39 PM

    In fact, I’ll make a prediction that the likely way this will be published in journal form, will be through the DNA side of it. The archaeology stuff will be in the tv shows, the book version, etc., and it will be supporting evidence in the biological paper. But it will be a biological paper.

  6. bshistorian
    February 5, 2013 at 3:17 AM

    There will still be an excavation report monograph, and the pathology side of it will appear there. I can’t be sure of this, but would be very surprised if it didn’t happen this way.

  7. Phil
    February 5, 2013 at 4:32 AM

    I guess someone had a good hunch.

  8. JB
    February 5, 2013 at 7:57 AM

    I googled searched if anyone was questioning the findings reported re Richard III body being located and found this site. Very interesting perspective. I wondered if there was more scientific proof to support the claim and what percentage of error in the claim exists. The aspects that made me wonder as to the claim was the overwhelming focus that they were correct from the get go. This apparently was a churchyard so finding a body buried would be expected. Finding a male with a bad back, probably not rare. A partial genetic connection from a group of descendants from an island population, probably not as unusual.
    Even a modern day paternity tests offers a percentage of error or probability with their conclusions.
    The modeling of the face which used the skeleton as well as modern day depictions of Richard III support the desire to support the finding, rather than to discuss the questions. I agree with the post here to not rush to judgement. Like many genealogy fans often their conclusions that they have located their ancestry is dependent on finding individuals that can not be “x” out, that becomes their ancestor.

  9. Adam
    February 5, 2013 at 8:14 AM

    I thought the TV documentary was pretty atrocious. Lacking much detail and filled with some extremely uncomfortable meetings between archaeologists and the lady who instigated the dig. The worst aspect was the wild haired unfunny man they got to present it who seemed more interested in cracking jokes than what was going on in front of him.

  10. February 5, 2013 at 4:06 PM

    I was excited at the prospect of finally finding Richard III, but so few people are looking at the science behind the find. It may well be the lost King considering the spinal deformation and the scarred skeleton, but if they dig in a wider radius, will they find more remains in similar condition?

  11. spookyparadigm
    February 5, 2013 at 10:28 PM

    If you mean a report, which is not peer-reviewed, sure. Will there be a peer-reviewed book? Maybe. But an archaeological journal article? I’d be curious to see what that looks like.

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