Geneticist Speaks on Rediscovering Richard III

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 - 8:15am
Geneticist Turi King; skeleton believed to be that of English King Richard III

Most kings and queens of old were buried in a tomb, but not the nefarious Richard III, whose remains disappeared after he died in 1485 on the field at the Battle of Bosworth.

His body was taken to Leicester and buried anonymously and in haste, but the grave’s location was lost—until 2012, that is—when his skeleton was discovered by archaeologists under a parking lot in Leicester, England, among the ruins of Greyfriars, the church where Richard III was thought to have been buried.

Sean Gilsdorf, a visiting assistant professor of history at Mount Holyoke, was intrigued by this discovery and the ensuing DNA testing that made the case for the skeleton being that of Richard III. So when he heard that the lead geneticist on the project, Turi King, would be in Boston, he asked her to discuss her work in Western Massachusetts.

King agreed. She is scheduled to speak at 4 pm April 30, at the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies (650 East Pleasant St., Amherst).

“A lot of people are familiar with Richard III,” Gilsdorf says. The line from Shakespeare’s eponymous play, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” has become part of the vernacular, he says. Several films also tell the story of the hunchback king, and the Smithsonian Channel’s Secrets series has a program called Richard III Revealed. “People are intrigued,” Gilsdorf says. “These secrets of the past are fascinating.”

Turi King’s team traced the mitochondrial DNA in the skeleton’s bones to DNA in the descendants of Richard III. That endeavor sparked some controversy; Gilsdorf says that, as in all mysteries, “the debate isn’t closed.”

In her lecture, King will describe the Greyfriars Project through which the bones were found and the analysis carried out on the remains.

“She’ll talk about how geneticists and archaeologists work together to solve problems,” Gilsdorf says. “It’s a valuable life lesson for students. They have the idea that they have to be in the sciences or the humanities, and Turi King is an example of how the two are bridged.”

Her lecture is made possible with the support of the Five College Lecture Fund; the Weissman Center for Leadership; the MHC Departments of history and biological sciences, and the Medieval Studies Committee; the Five College Medieval Studies Seminar; the University of Massachusetts Department of English; the Smith College Archaeology Program; and the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies.

—By Ronni Gordon