The remains of Richard III were recently reinterred after the Plantagenet king was discovered beneath a car park. And this year, researcher announced that they may have discovered the remains of Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes. But when a corpse has been missing so long, how do you identify the remains?
Top image by kamnuan/ Shutterstock.
Finding the Remains
In order to identify a famous person’s lost remains, first you have to find those remains. The problem is that there is likely a reason the remains were lost in the first place.
In the case of Richard III, there were a couple of hitches in figuring out where the king’s body ended up. According to contemporary sources, after Richard III fell in the Battle of Bosworth Field, his body was interred at Greyfriars Church in Leicester, which was demolished in 1538. So Richard III must be where Greyfriars once stood, right?
Well, for a long time, tradition held that wasn’t the case at all. It had long been rumored that Richard III’s body had been exhumed during the reign of Henry VIII and thrown into the River Soar. But historians began to suspect that the River Soar story simply wasn’t true. In 1975, Audrey Strange speculated in an article in The Ricardian that an account of a different body, that of religious reformer John Wycliffe, had become confused over the years and misapplied to Richard III. That put the former site of the church back in play.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s remains were lost after his body was exhumed. He was originally interred at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians after his death in 1616. But while the convent was being rebuilt in 1673, its deceased guests were temporarily moved to a different facility. The bodies were later reinterred at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarian, but Cervantes’ remains were apparently lost in the shuffle, and it wasn’t clear exactly where in the convent the author’s coffin lay.
Once researchers have an idea where a set of famous remains may rest, they turn to technology. In the cases of both Richard III and Cervantes, ground-penetrating radar was used to reveal hidden burial sites, giving the archaeologists an idea of where to excavate. Researchers seeking Cervantes’ remains found an underground crypt containing 33 alcoves, which they spent months exploring.
Not all allegedly famous remains are discovered in hidden graves, however. A head claimed to have belonged to King Henry IV of France was discovered in a tax collector’s attic; the traceable chain of custody for that head only goes back as far as 1919. Remains that were said to have belonged to Joan of Arc were housed in a church in Normandy. Sometimes, researchers don’t even have a burial site as evidence of the identity of the remains.
Dating the Remains
Once you’ve found human remains, how do you know you’ve found the right remains? Well, for one thing, you want to make sure that the remains come from the right era. And for that, you’ll need to perform radiocarbon dating. That gives researchers a sense of how old the remains are.
Radiocarbon dating alone can’t confirm the identity of remains, but it can rule certain identities out. For example, radiocarbon dating of Richard III’s remains dated them somewhere around 1475-1530 CE, which lines up with the king’s death in 1485. In contrast, Joan of Arc’s alleged remains were dated to somewhere between the third and sixth centuries BCE. Joan of Arc died in 1431 CE. The remains were eventually found to have come from an Egyptian mummy.
Were the Remains Embalmed?
A particularly interesting piece of evidence that helped debunk the idea that the Normandy relic was remains of Joan of Arc was the way the relic smelled. French pathologist Philippe Charlier had two perfume industry “noses” smell the remains. The noses detected odors of plaster and vanilla. Plaster was consistent with the idea that the remains belonged to Joan of Arc; some sources say she was burned on a plaster stake. Vanilla, however, suggests the remains were embalmed, which doesn’t fit with the nature of Joan of Arc’s death. Fragments of linen cloth that coated the remains contained pine pollen, which is consistent with Egyptian mummification rituals.
Interestingly, the absence of a particular death ritual has led some researchers to cast doubt on Charlier’s identification of the head of Henry IV. The French historian Philippe Delorme has pointed out that, at the time Henry IV died, royal corpses were typically subjected to craniotomies. Bony tissue was harvested from the skull, and the tissue would be worn as an amulet. There was no evidence of craniotomy on the skull Charlier’s team identified as Henry IV’s.
As with radiocarbon dating, smell alone can’t confirm the identity of your human remains. But knowing a bit about embalming practices at various times and places — and the circumstances of your subject’s death — can go a long way.
If you’ve ever watched an episode of Bones, you’ve seen the show’s fictional forensic anthropologist gauge a skeleton’s age, sex, and ethnic background just by looking at the shape and placement of the bones. And the shape and structure of human remains can be very helpful in identifying their owner.
“DNA is very often absent or so fragmented that it is no more useful,” Charlier told us in an email. “I prefer much more morphology, that gives precious data for the identification process without any doubt.”
In examining Richard III’s skeleton, specialists at the University of Leicester were able to determine that the skeleton was male and narrow down its age to 30–34 years. (Richard III was 32 when he died.) They also found that the skeleton’s owner had suffered from scoliosis — not quite the hunched back described in William Shakespeare’s play about Richard III, but a potentially visible malformation, nonetheless. Unfortunately, we have no surviving portraits of Richard III painted during his lifetime; they earliest portraits we have of him are copies of lost originals.
Charlier explained to us that he and his team use a variety of contemporary sources to determine what a historical figure’s body looked like, including “Diaries and physician’s records, indeed, but also historical chronicles, portraits, funeral masks, etc.” Part of his team’s (now contested) identification of Henry IV’s head involved looking at its structure and comparing it to descriptions of the king’s appearance in these contemporary sources. For example, they noted a lesion above the head’s right nostril, which is found in portraits of Henry IV, as well as a healed bone fracture above the head’s upper left jaw. The latter is consistent with a stab wound Henry IV suffered in 1594. Those were two of the pieces of evidence Charlier’s team used to make its conclusion.
But what about facial reconstruction, which makes for such compelling “gotcha” moments on TV? Well, it may not be as precise as those shows would lead us to believe. Speaking to the LA Times about the controversy over Henry IV’s supposed head, UC Santa Cruz forensic anthropologist Alison Galloway said, “If you had a group of 100 skulls — all men of European ancestry, let’s say — and you had a photograph of a person, about 10 of those skulls could superimpose pretty well on that photograph.... [I]t’s a technique much better used to exclude somebody [than identify them].”
When it comes to identifying the remains of Miguel de Cervantes, the state of the bones will be key. The box that is believed to contain his remains contained the bones of ten adults and five children. Cervantes had no known descendants, but we do know some details of his life and the injuries he’s supposed to have sustained. He was around 70 years old when he died and records indicate that his left hand had been badly injured and he had suffered severe chest bruising from an arquebus shot. Those details could help identify or rule out the discovered remains.
Especially when combined with other evidence, DNA testing can prove a definitive way to identify remains – but only under very specific circumstances. The researchers studying Richard III had a bit of luck; Richard III has an unbroken line of female descendants through his sister, Anne of York.
Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to child. Since Richard III and Anne of York shared a mother, they also shared their mitochondrial DNA. In each generation of Anne of York’s descendants, at least one woman who was related to Anne of York through her mother had a daughter, creating an unbroken line of mothers and daughters. Historian and genealogist John Ashdown-Hill identified two living women in this line. Their mitochondrial DNA was a match for that found in the skeleton beneath the car park.
Fathers pass their Y-chromosomes on to their sons, so an unbroken male lineage could also be used in such an identification. However, this is trickier from a genealogical perspective; it’s a lot easier to know definitively who a person’s mother is than it is to definitively know who their father is.
That’s one reason that DNA evidence can be subject to debate, especially when we’re trying to trace centuries’ worth of genealogical history. DNA from the head that Charlier’s team identified as Henry IV’s was tested against three male descendants from the House of Bourbon. The three men were found to be genetically related to each other, but not to the head. In light of this and other challenges to the identification, four of the authors on the paper identifying the head retracted their findings. Charlier, on the other hand, has argued that some of Henry IV’s supposed descendants may have been illegitimate, suggesting that they were not genetically related to the king. He and five other authors on the paper declined to retract. Science has come remarkably far when it comes to identifying these long-dead, long-lost remains, but some identifications still remain uncertain.