Royal Reliquaries, or Who Do You Think You Are?

Richard III Royal Collection

Richard III Royal Collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard III’s bones were found under a car park, Henri IV’s head was kept in a jar, Louis XVI’s blood was soaked into a decorative gourd. All of these remains were recently proved real by DNA testing and publicized with splashy press releases. Each had met a violent end: Richard hit over the head on Bosworth Field by a pretender to the throne, Henri stabbed to death by a religious fanatic, Louis guillotined by revolutionaries. None of those stories were ever in doubt yet the positive identification of these relics has made international news. One wonders why. Ghoulish fascination? Henri’s head was, after all, mummified. Perhaps it’s related to the rise of the royals as pop culture icons. Even more than her wedding, Lady Di’s funeral brought the world to a standstill. It might be all those forensic science shows. What’s been called the “CSI effect”—or our television induced belief that we know our way around a crime scene—has proved strong enough that it’s changing not only the behavior of jurors (who now expect evidence to be DNA tested) but also that of criminals (who have learned how to destroy crime scene DNA traces). A mixed blessing to say the least.

Our relationship with DNA testing is fraught. The CSI effect has also tended to make people believe in the infallibility of the process when, in reality, genetic matches are based on probabilities and not certainties. Belief, in other words, hinges on faith even now. Reliquaries always relied on magical thinking for their power. The image on the Shroud of Turin can be proved a fake over and over and yet its power persists: the image is miraculous. With bodily relics, the science and the magic come together. Royalty, after all, can only be maintained by a belief in bloodlines. In a world where royals exist outside of real political power, we can trade skepticism for escapism with little harm.

Yet if forensic science can ratify the fame of the named, it can do the same for the nameless. While the power of DNA evidence in popular culture feeds our fairytale fantasies, it also fuels our desire for justice. It goes far beyond the wrongly convicted who are freed by the analysis of a decades old crime scene sample or the coldest of cold cases that finally comes to a conclusion. Ordinary people have bloodlines, too. has made a fortune off of this insight and its ingenious infomercial series, Who Do You Think You Are?, managed to sprinkle star dust on genealogical research. Ancestry, of course, is record and not DNA-driven, but when African Americans Blair Underwood and Emmitt Smith guest starred on the show their ancestral searches took inevitable turns toward genetic science. For some people, the paper trails stop cold. After the Middle Passage, the enslaved lost their connections to their homelands and only the rise of DNA databases has been able to bridge that gap. Smith located part of his ancestry in Benin, while Underwood got to meet a (very) distant cousin in Cameroon who seemed a little confused by the premise of the show but threw a party anyway.

These DNA matches aren’t perfect. But they’re also close enough to the truth that no one can deny what they reveal. Witness the recent announcements about Michelle Obama’s mixed race ancestry and the discomfort it has caused for what it says about the American past. DNA-based revelations about Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings certainly helped lead to the recent statement by a well-known scholar that Jefferson was “one of the most deeply creepy people in American history.” Skeletons just don’t stay in the closet anymore. Even now archaeologists are exhuming the bodies of the mistreated and forgotten at a Florida reform school. In Pennsylvania, at a site called Duffy’s Cut, a team of dedicated historians, students, and scientists have dug up the remains of Irish railroad workers believed to have died of cholera in 1832 and revealed that they were murder victims. One was identified as John Ruddy in part by an abnormality in his teeth that matched that of living descendants. They hope to repatriate the body to Ireland. If so, Ruddy will be like Richard. Both king and commoner can rest in peace at last.