Monday 4 February 2013

Information and Identity: Richard III, genetics and being British

What a wonderful story to set you (well, me, anyway) thinking about information and identity:
Richard III: DNA confirms twisted bones belong to king
Skeleton found beneath Leicester car park confirmed as that of Richard III, as work begins on new tomb near excavation site
[...] There were cheers when Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist on the hunt for the king's body, finally announced that the university team was convinced "beyond reasonable doubt" that it had found the last Plantagenet king, bent by scoliosis of the spine, and twisted further to fit into a hastily dug hole in Grey Friars church, which was slightly too small to hold his body. 

But by then it was clear the evidence was overwhelming, as the scientists who carried out the DNA tests, those who created the computer-imaging technology to peer on to and into the bones in raking detail, the genealogists who found a distant descendant with matching DNA, and the academics who scoured contemporary texts for accounts of the king's death and burial, outlined their findings....

Richard died at Bosworth on 22 August 1485, the last English king to fall in battle, and the researchers revealed how for the first time. ...

Michael Ibsen, the Canadian-born furniture maker proved as the descendant of Richard's sister, heard the confirmation on Sunday and listened to the unfolding evidence in shocked silence. "My head is no clearer now than when I first heard the news," he said. "Many, many hundreds of people died on that field that day. He was a king, but just one of the dead. He lived in very violent times, and these deaths would not have been pretty or quick.
Guardian 4/2/13
Things to think about:
  • All the different bits of evidence that were used to make the identification, especially the genetics
  • Linking directly to my discussion of information and being British, how nice it is that the descendant turned out to be Canadian, not British. It would have been even better if they'd found a descendant who was black, which of course would have been perfectly possible, especially given the number of generations from then until now. I bet there is a black descendant of the family out there somewhere, but probably not so easy to trace.
  • Why do we care?  I confess that for some reason I love this story. There's something especially enjoyable about it being car-park in Leicester.  No disrespect to the residents of Leicester*, but a more mundane location than that would be difficult to imagine. 
  • However, I like Ibsen's quote "Many, many hundreds of people died on that field that day. He was a king, but just one of the dead." He's right, and it is something that bothers me in many contexts. Lives that matter, and lives that don't. 

* Don't you just know that when anyone says that "no disrespect to xxx" they are about to be rude about "xxx". Sorry, people of Leicester. I live in and love Milton Keynes, so I'm hardly speaking from a position of superiority.

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