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…
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.