Was This The Real Mona Lisa?

Mona Lisa
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Scientists in Florence are examining the bones of a 16th century nun they think served as the model for the Mona Lisa.

Lisa Gherardini Del Giocondo was the wife of a wealthy merchant and is rumored to have been the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait. She was a famed beauty in her time and lived across the street from the famous artist and inventor. When her husband died she became a nun at the convent of San Orsula in Florence, where she died and was buried in 1542.

A team of scientists went looking for her in a crypt under the convent. DNA in the bones they found is now being compared with samples taken from the Gherardini family tomb in hopes of finding a match. The next step will be facial reconstruction to see what the woman looked like in life. Perhaps they’ll find the mystery to her enigmatic smile.

Facial reconstruction and DNA analysis have already been done for the remains of King Richard III, found last year under an English parking lot. Researchers are also examining the possible remains of King Alfred the Great.

Scientists Confirm Remains Of King Richard III Have Been Found

Richard IIIArchaeologists from the University of Leicester have confirmed that they have found the remains of King Richard III beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England.

Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet kings and fought an epic struggle with the Tudors during the War of the Roses for control of England. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Support for the Plantagenet line crumbled and soon Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII.

After the battle, Richard III’s body was buried in the church choir of the Franciscan friary of the Grey Friars. Dr. Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist for the project, explained that the church’s location has always been generally known although the friary was dissolved in 1538 and soon all trace of the building above ground had disappeared.

Two trenches were dug at the site last August and human remains were found almost immediately. One male skeleton had suffered from scoliosis that led to curvature of the spine. It was also unusually slender and aged in its early thirties. All characteristics agree with contemporary descriptions of Richard III.

There are ten trauma wounds on the body. Eight are on the skull. One was from a bladed weapon that cut off a section from the base of the skull. A second injury, also on the base of the skull, cut through the bone as well. Both of these wounds would have been fatal. Several other blows shaved off pieces of bone or left pockmarks in the skull. It appears that Richard wasn’t wearing a helmet by this point in the battle.Two cut marks on the rib and pelvis also appear to have been inflicted after his armor was removed. The archaeologists theorize that Richard III was stripped and given “humiliation injuries,” a common practice with dead or dying victims in the Middle Ages. Historical sources state that Richard’s naked body was slung over a horse and brought to town after the Battle of Bosworth. It may have been at this time that the extra injuries occurred.

Richard III almost suffered another humiliation centuries later when the foundation for a 19th-century brick outhouse nearly cut into his grave.

Initially the archaeologists thought they’d found a barb, perhaps from an arrow, in the body but it turns out that this was probably a Roman nail disturbed from an earlier site. No other artifacts were found in the burial.

The next step was to radiocarbon date the bone. Results showed that they dated to the late 15th early 16th century. This was all interesting but still only circumstantial evidence. There was still no proof that they had found the lost king. There was also the troubling popular legend that an angry mob threw his remains into the River Soar after the dissolution of the friary. There’s even a historic plaque at the location where this was supposed to have taken place.

The university tracked down some descendants of Richard III who agreed to give DNA samples to compare with DNA extracted from the skeleton. This was the clincher. Project geneticist Dr. Turi King confirmed at a press conference today that, “The DNA evidence points to these being the remains of Richard III.”

Dr. Richard Buckley added that they could now confirm that the body is that of Richard III “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Back in December, some of this information was leaked to the press, but today’s news conference is the first official confirmation that archaeologists have, indeed found a lost medieval king.

Richard III’s remains will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral early next year. A permanent exhibition about Richard III and the excavation will open in town at about the same time. The university has also launched a new Richard III website.

[Top photo courtesy University of Leicester. Bottom image of the Battle of Bosworth courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

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Reassembling The Skeletons Of Medieval Royalty

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A team of scientists from Bristol University are using DNA analysis to identify the remains of early medieval English royalty.

The bones are kept in several mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral and include the remains of King Cnut, a Norse ruler who conquered England and ruled it from 1016-1035. The other remains are of Emma, his queen, and later kings Harthacnut, Egbert, Ethelwulf and William Rufus.

During the English Civil War the cathedral was looted by the supporters of Parliament, who disliked the “Popish” trappings of the elegant house of worship. In addition to stealing everything of value, they opened the mortuary chests and scattered their contents. The bones were replaced but of course are now mixed up.

The Daily Mail reports that the team will use DNA matching to determine which bones belong to which person. One of the DNA matches they will use will be from a recently excavated 10th century queen from Saxony named Eadgyth, who was related to some of the royals kept at the cathedral. The team is working within the cathedral so as not to remove the bones from hallowed ground.

Winchester Cathedral is the longest Gothic cathedral in Europe and dates to 1079. Like most historic churches in England, there was an earlier church on this site and many later changes to the present structure. The nave has a beautiful vaulted ceiling and some very nice stained glass, as well as an interesting museum. The town of Winchester boasts not only the cathedral, but also some other fine medieval buildings. It’s an hour by rail from London and makes a good day trip.

[Cathedral photo courtesy Tony Hisgett. Photo of coin bearing the inscription “Cnut King of the English” courtesy Wikimedia Commons]
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Have Archaeologists Found The Lost Tomb Of Richard III?

Richard III
Back in August, we covered a new excavation in the English city of Leicester searching for the lost tomb of King Richard III. Now the University of Leicester reports that their team has discovered bones in the church where he is said to have been buried.

Richard III was the last of the Plantagenet kings and fought an epic struggle with the Tudors during the War of the Roses for control of England. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Support for the Plantagenet line crumbled and soon Henry Tudor was crowned King Henry VII.

After the battle, Richard III’s body was buried in the church choir of the Franciscan friary of the Grey Friars. The church and friary were demolished in the 1530s during the reign of Henry VIII and the precise location was eventually lost. Using old maps, archaeologists figured out the church lay beneath a modern parking lot.

Archaeologists from the university and the Richard III Society sunk trenches through the parking lot and soon located the friary’s chapter house and the cloister, a courtyard with a covered walkway around it. Soon after, the team found the church itself. A public day last weekend attracted more than 1500 people.

Artifacts uncovered include inlaid floor tiles, a medieval silver penny, metal letters that perhaps once were part of an epitaph, and architectural elements from the choir and church. An added bonus was the discovery of a garden from an early mayor of Leicester.

Now the excavation has revealed two skeletons, one of a female and one of a male. The male was found in what archaeologists believe is the choir, where Richard was said to have been buried. This well-preserved skeleton shows trauma to the skull from a bladed instrument and a barbed metal arrowhead was found between the vertebrae of the upper back. The skeleton also has spinal abnormalities.

The university press statement says: “We believe the individual would have had severe scoliosis – which is a form of spinal curvature. This would have made his right shoulder appear visibly higher than the left shoulder. This is consistent with contemporary accounts of Richard’s appearance. The skeleton does not have kyphosis – a different form of spinal curvature. The skeleton was not a hunchback. There appears to be no evidence of a ‘withered arm.'”

Richard was said to have had a hunched back and withered arm, but many historians believe this was later propaganda. Perhaps it was an exaggeration of a real ailment?

Is this the skeleton of King Richard III? The university can’t say for sure. Richard was probably not the only person buried in the church choir, this being a common practice, so the bones will have to be analyzed further. Genealogists have tracked down a direct descendant of Richard’s sister who can provide DNA to check for a match.

The university says a full analysis may take up to 12 weeks. When the results come in, we’ll be sure to report on it.

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Archaeologists Search For Lost Grave Of King Richard III

Richard IIIArchaeologists in Leicester, England, are looking for the grave of a king – in a parking lot.

The grave of Richard III is believed to be beneath the parking lot of a local government building, according to analysis by the University of Leicester.

Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the decisive battle of the War of the Roses. The victor was Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII.

Richard was buried at the Franciscan friary of Greyfriars. Later development erased all trace of this church and the site was lost. Richard III is one of the few English kings for whom there is no recognized burial place. Now archaeologists have analyzed old maps and believe they have pinpointed roughly where the church was.

Heavy machinery moved in this weekend to break up the pavement, the Leicester Mercury reports. Once they’re done, the archaeologists will dig two trenches using more meticulous methods in the hope of hitting part of the church. The trenches will run from north to south, maximizing the chances of hitting the church. Medieval churches were traditionally built from east to west.

If they do find any bones, they’ll be able to tell if they belong to the slain king. Genealogists have discovered a direct descendant of Richard’s sister and will be able to use DNA analysis to check for a match.

The work should be finished in two weeks. On September 8-9 the excavation will have an open house for the public.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]