Scientists Work Out Richard III's Diet Using Teeth And Bone Chemistry

University of Leicester, 'Dr Jo Appleby carefully exhumes the bones of Richard III' Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Richard III was King of England for just two years during the 15th Century when he died at the Battle of Bosworth. The resting place of King Richard remained a mystery for many years, but in 2012 archeologists finally recovered his skeleton from beneath a car park in Leicester. Since then, scientists have been examining his remains in the hope of finding out more about this medieval King. Now, in a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, fascinating details about his life and diet have been revealed through analysis of his teeth and bones.

For the investigation, which was led by the British Geological Survey and University of Leicester researchers, the team analyzed the chemistry of two teeth and two bones: the femur and the rib. All of these develop and remodel at different stages of life, allowing the researchers to piece together bits of information from early adolescence until shortly before he died.

To reconstruct his life history, the scientists performed isotope (strontium, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon and lead) analysis on the teeth and bones. King Richard’s teeth, which formed during his childhood and early adolescence, confirmed that he grew up in Northamptonshire, but also suggested that he relocated by the time he was 7, possibly moving further west. This is because the phosphate oxygen isotope ratios of his tooth enamel were more typical of populations residing in areas that experienced higher rainfall.

Carbon and nitrogen values also suggested that his diet significantly changed when he moved away from Northamptonshire, shifting from a diet high in meat and fish towards a cereal-based diet. This was quite unexpected given that wealthier families would have consumed more meat and fish and less cereals. However, when they looked at his femur, which represents an average of long-term conditions, they found he moved back east as a young adult and during this time he had a diet typical of a Late Medieval aristocrat: bread, ale, meat, fish and wine.

Lastly, the researchers examined one of his ribs. This bone remodels quickly and therefore only represents the last few years of his life. They found a significant shift in the nitrogen, but not carbon, isotope values, which could suggest another relocation but this does not match with historical records. Instead, the researchers speculate that this shift may represent another significant change in his diet which likely reflects his time as King. In particular, they think it could be explained by an increase in consumption of freshwater fish and birds such as swan, crane and heron which were all popular luxury items feasted upon at royal banquets.

Another interesting finding was that his oxygen isotope values increased towards the end of his life, which could indicate that he became prone to a cheeky tipple of wine. As before, this period matches up with his time as King, reinforcing the idea that wealthy members of society regularly feasted and consumed lots of wine.

In sum, this research has provided a rare and exciting opportunity to compare scientific findings with conflicting historical records, shedding light on various aspects of the life of this highly controversial character.  

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