By Dr Turi King

02 November 2016 - 09:24

Skeleton of Richard III. Photo (c) University of Leicester
'Richard III's skeleton shows a sideways displacement of the spine, a heavy scoliosis.' Photo ©

University of Leicester.

Dr Turi King combined archaeology, history, and genetics to find the remains of Richard III, who died 500 years ago. In this interview, which first appeared in German, Dr King compares the literary figure with the real man.

Does the historical Richard III have anything to do with Shakespeare's literary figure?

Shakespeare called Richard III a 'hunchback', which means that he was hunching forward while walking. Richard III's skeleton shows a sideways displacement of the spine, a heavy scoliosis, which made the king walk obliquely. So there is a certain match between the two: something unusual about the body. However, according to Shakespeare, he also had 'a limp and a withered arm', which his skeleton did not show.

Nor are the evil character traits, which Shakespeare described, historically confirmed. One has to keep in mind that Shakespeare was writing during the reign of Elizabeth I. She was a Tudor, part of a family that succeeded the Plantagenets to the English throne following heavy combat. So Shakespeare couldn't in the slightest have represented the hated Plantagenet as lovable. Richard III had to be a 'horrible' character, due to the political correctness of the time.

Thanks to your unusual combination of archaeology and genetics, you were perfectly placed to excavate and genetically examine the bones that turned out to be the mortal remains of the last Plantagenet king. Where else can this expertise be used?

I am especially interested in the connection between family names and a type of Y-chromosome, which only men carry. You can trace, among other things, the origin of certain populations, because, in England, family names are being passed on patrilineally. For example, I have been studying Vikings in the north of England, whose genes also appear in Norway particularly often. The rarer the name, the higher the match rate. This also works in the US. For instance, the US president Thomas Jefferson had a highly unusual Y-chromosome. I found two Jeffersons from two entirely different regions in England, who had the same type of Y-chromosome as the president. They may have had no idea about their relation to him, but the relationship must have still been there. It can be quite fun when you say to someone that he is related to Thomas Jefferson.

There are also many medical applications. At the moment, I'm working on a project that examines people from an area close to an abbey in England. Many people from that area suffered from a chronic illness called Paget's disease, which makes bones porous and spongy, and which is not very well-researched. In this case, we are looking for specific genes that people in this area carry; genes that could have something to do with the disease.

Could what you do be useful for fighting crime?

Indeed, the possibilities are very promising. If you are able to isolate a Y-chromosome from a crime, you could then search a database for the family name that carries this specific genetic trait. If someone with that family name is among the suspects, that person will be the first to be questioned and examined. This could substantially speed up investigations. At the moment, we don't have such a database unfortunately.

Back to Richard III – what did you think and feel when you realised that you had indeed found the king's bones?

There were two special moments, in fact. We found him right on the first day of the excavations, because we knew where the church choir used to be, and we knew that the king would have been buried there. I had not assumed that we would actually find him there. But when I found the skeleton of this young man, with combat and battle wounds, with strong scoliosis, and the curvature of the spine, it was immediately clear to me that we had a candidate in front of us. That was a touching moment. Unfortunately, the DNA was fragmented and had degenerated, because DNA starts to change straight after the moment of death. The DNA I had in this case came from two tiny samples from his teeth, which were already 500 years old. That made the study difficult. When we landed a second hit in our investigation – it was shortly before Christmas – I thought, oh, my God! That was the second big moment for me. And at the same time, I knew that I still had quite a lot to do to solve this puzzle and remove any doubt as to the result. It was also immediately clear to me that we were under immense media pressure, while having to publish correct scientific results.

Do you know what the king's hair and eye colours were?

There are no portraits of Richard III that were painted during his lifetime. The earliest came at least 25 to 30 years after his death. A test of 11 different genes, about which we know that they influence hair and eye colours, has however already shown that there's a 96 per cent chance of Richard III having had blue eyes, and 77 per cent that he had blond hair. We are in the process of sequencing Richard III's genome to find out, for example, which blood type he was, and similar things.

This interview, conducted by Patricia Pätzold and published on TU intern, is our translation from the German.

Dr King delivered the live-streamed Queen's Lecture in Berlin yesterday, 1 November 2016. You can watch a recording of it just below.

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