“Richard III is a good conversation opener…”

This year is the tenth anniversary of the beginning of one of the most ambitious archaeological projects ever attempted: the search for the lost grave of King Richard III. In 2012, the University of Leicester, in collaboration with the Richard III Society and Leicester City Council, was thrust into the international limelight, as the eyes of the world watched the start of what would become the successful unearthing, identification and reinternment of the last English king to die in battle.

A decade on, one of the University project members, Professor Sarah Hainsworth OBE, looks back at the most thrilling chapter of her career. Sarah’s forensic engineering research expertise is in the areas of knife crime and tool mark characterisation. This made her the perfect candidate to characterise the weapon marks on the skeleton that allowed identification of how the King died on the battlefield – including the first use of micro-computed X-ray tomography in the analysis of tool marks in archaeological investigations.

“Of course, it’s a good conversation opener, to say I worked on the Richard III project.

"I conducted forensic tests on what turned out to be King Richard III’s remains, including the various wounds he’d sustained in battle.

"The bones had a number of injuries to the skull, pelvis and ribcage.

"At the time I was looking at the skull, it hadn’t been confirmed it was Richard III, so in some ways, it felt like a normal scientific investigation – although the king was at the back of the mind, and I was thinking, ‘this could be him’.

"Once it had been confirmed the remains were Richard III, the team and I just felt so much excitement. 

"My background is in engineering, with part of my research centered on looking at tool marks on human remains and the forces involved in stabbing. I applied this expertise to the King’s bones.

Watch a video of Sarah explaining more about the injuries on YouTube

"There were nine injuries to his skull, but when you look at skeletal remains from similar and earlier battles they would tend to have many more marks from injuries from weapons to the bones. We worked out that Richard’s face, in fact, had relatively few injuries, which led us to suspect that was because they wanted to put his body on show, and make sure he could be identified by onlookers as the defeated king, to prove he was dead.

"We found that three cuts to the top of the skull had fine line marks within them that are unique to the blade that caused them. If you put a serrated knife through a block of cheese, you’ll see the same sort of effect as the striations (or marks) we could see. We weren’t able to identify the actual weapons used to create the injuries to Richard, but it allowed us to pinpoint the type of weapons that  were used knowing the types of weapons that were used on battlefields at the time.

"There was also a knife cut to his chin, and a big wound on his skull caused by a halberd, which is an axe blade and spike mounted on a pole. Then there was an entry point at the bottom left of the skull, where the blade would have penetrated through the King’s brain, leaving a mark on the opposite side of the inside of his skull which would have led to death. All pretty gruesome.

"For me, the great legacy of the King’s unearthing was the impact it had on people who might not have ordinarily have been interested in the sciences and engineering.

"In terms of outreach, it has been incredible. Personally, the find led to me travelling to places such as South Africa and Mexico and all over the UK, to talk at science festivals. Everybody wanted to know about the King. I spoke to local groups and countless schools, and it was pleasing to be able to show that engineers like myself have the opportunity to work on a huge range of projects. It opened people’s eyes to the different ways in which engineering science contributes to our understanding of things that people wouldn’t immediately think of as engineering.

"While I wasn’t one of the main players when it came to speaking to the media, even I was pretty busy with interview requests. I had 17 radio interviews in one day, which was gruelling, and a number of television interviews. I also recorded the soundtrack for a Lancet infographic, which was the publication’s first infographic to go viral.

"This case was also nice for me, because normally I wouldn’t be able to talk in detail about cases I would be working on, as they would often be linked to a pending criminal court case.  But, as Richard III was way in the past, we could talk about our work. His story was really relatable and raised the profile of the work I did.”