Discovering King Richard III

Dr. Turi King talks about discovering Richard III in a Leicester carpark as well as the link between surnames and the Y-chromosome.





My name is Dr. Turi King, and I’m a lecturer in genetics and archaeology at the University of Leicester. I started out in archaeology and anthropology at the University of Cambridge and I got really interested in how you can use genetics to answer questions in archaeology and history, and everyone there told me the best place to go and do molecular genetics was Leicester. So, I went to Leicester, and I did a Masters and a PhD and a PostDoc and then I became a lecturer in genetics and archaeology.

My work, for years, has basically involved sort of genetic genealogy, so my PhD was on the link between surnames and the Y-chromosome in Britain. So, basically for that sort of research, we’ve got the surnames and a Y-chromosome are passed down together down through the male line, so is there a link between a surname and a Y-chromosome type?

So, what I was doing for my PhD research, is I was getting lots of men all with the same surname, made sure they didn’t know if they were related to one another, and then I was looking at their Y-chromosome to see if actually they were related to one another.

Basically, what I found is that for the very common surnames like Smith – most common surname in Britain, and as you can imagine founded from the occupation of blacksmiths (I’ve found it all over the country many times), you get no link between the surname and the Y-chromosome type for that name. But, for the rarer names, and as you start to move down the frequency spectrum, as you move down to rarer names, you start to find that there is a nice link between a surname and a Y-chromosome type. So, that’s essentially what my PhD research was about.

Yeah, little did we know, we were blissfully unaware that we’d actually found Richard on the very first day. So, this was 527 years to the day when Richard III was buried in the Grey Friars, and the digger is going in, and it’s starting to pretty much immediately hit Victorian remains. Then it hit this little bit of bone here, and we didn’t think anything of it, because we think we’re probably digging in a church yard, and we’re probably going to find skeletal remains. And we’re joking that “Oh, it’s probably a 90 year-old Friar” – right?

So, little did we know, we were actually completely blissfully unaware that we’d actually already found Richard within the first sort of few minutes of the digger going in. So, yeah, it was interesting, because it was on a weekend, our Field Director did a quick check to kind of go, “Yep, does it look like it’s actually two legs? Ok, well, we’ll cover it up and we’ll get the license that you need to have. It’s a long weekend, so that can’t happen until Tuesday, so we’ll just basically keep going on with the dig.” We started to realize that we were actually in the Friary, but it took us about another week and a half before we realized who we’d actually hit.

My work completely relies on the genealogical work, obviously, because what I need is a relative to compare the DNA to. Obviously, with this time-distance than you need a fair amount of genealogical research to have gone on to actually identify people who would be suitable to take part. So, we actually already had somebody. We had Michael Ibsen, who had been traced by a chap called John Ashdown-Hill, who had found Joy Ibsen, Michael’s mom. Now, Joy had died a few years ago, but Michael agreed to take part in the project. So, this is great. We already had that to start with.

Now, obviously all of the genealogical evidence had to be properly referenced. So, this is where Professor Kevin Schurer, who is our Provost Chancellor of Research, came in. He has expertise in genealogy, and he basically went through the entire tree, got all the documentary evidence to make sure that it was correct. And the other thing that he really wanted to do was to get a second individual, so somebody else that’s distantly related to Michael through the female line (again, so that I can use mitochondrial DNA), and within about six weeks, by going through all of this documentary evidence, he managed to trace a second individual who agreed to take part in the project.

Now, having seen all of the publicity that Michael had to go through, this individual wished to remain anonymous (and we’re actually quite protective of that), but they were fantastic and took part in the project. So, this was great, because it meant that I had two individuals whose mitochondrial DNA should match, and then I can use that as a comparator to any skeletal remains that are found in the Grey Friars site. So, that’s essentially what I was doing. I used those two individuals as my comparator, and then I got mitochondrial DNA out of the skeletal remains, and there was a lovely great match, so it was a pretty amazing moment to see all of that coming back. I did a little dance around the lab with my friend Pat.

So, a lot of my work is still continuing to build on the work that I did with my PhD. So, obviously we know that there is a link between a surname and a Y-chromosome. So, surnames in Britain are about 700 years old. So, after the period where we know that the Vikings (the Norse Vikings) got there. So, if I’m looking at somebody who’s got a very old surname that is tied to the north of England, because there’s this link between a surname and a Y-chromosome, we’re probably looking at a Y-chromosome type that’s quite old, and tied to the north of England probably about 700 years ago.

So, what’s interesting is if I’m looking in these areas where we know the Norse Vikings got to, and I’m looking at men with these very, very old surnames, chances are their ancestry goes back to this area. So, I’m interested to see whether or not, as a group, do men in the North of England (where we know the Vikings got to) have higher instances of what looks like Scandinavian ancestry than men in other parts of the country?

So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been going around the north of England, very interested in men who’ve got very old, rare surnames tied to particular regions in the north of England typing their Y-chromosome types and looking at proportions of Viking ancestry. So, I have a lot of men who contact me, who tell me that they’ve got a very old surname, they’d like to take part in the study, and they’re obviously very interested in knowing whether or not they’ve got a Y-chromosome type that looks like it comes from Norway. Have they got Viking ancestry?