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Ancient Murders Unearthed

'Letting the bones speak': Professor Turi King on 'Ancient Murders Unearthed'

Professor Turi King cracked one of the biggest forensic DNA cases in history - the exhumation and reburial of Richard III.

Turi King (right) with 'Ancient Murders Unearthed' co-host Rod Demery (left)

Ancient Murders Unearthed travels back in time to iconic epochs and cultures to re-tell the stories of infamous and little-known murders, from the Rosemarkie Man, a Pictish man who was killed and ritualistically buried in a Black Isle cave, to Otzi, the ice man who was murdered 5,000 years ago.

The series is hosted by Louisiana homicide detective Rod Demery and geneticist, archaeologist, and forensics expert Professor Turi King who cracked one of the biggest forensic DNA cases in history - the exhumation and reburial of Richard III.

Sky HISTORY caught up with Professor King to discuss the show and find out more about how forensic science can shine a light on the last actions of ancient murder victims.

How would you describe the premise of Ancient Murders Unearthed?

Essentially, we’re going back and looking at some very, very cold cases. I look at what science can bring to the investigation while Rod brings his experience as a homicide detective.

What’s the grisliest murder you cover in the series?

Rosemarkie Man: poor guy. He met a nasty end. They went to town on his head.

What's the process you follow to find out about these ancient murder victims?

There's this phrase about letting the bones speak. What can the bones tell us? How old is this skeleton? What sex is the skeleton?

Then you start to get down to the nitty-gritty of how did this person die? We talk to experts who can reconstruct the last few minutes of this person’s life. It’s interesting to know how he is found. How is this individual buried? Does that tell us anything about him?

What did you learn about the Rosemarkie Man?

They’ve done stable isotope analysis, which showed that he’s from that area. He was quite a robust individual. He’s probably in his early 20s. I jokingly say in the episode that it looks like he’s been down the gym. We can see at what sort of level he must be in society because he’s eating quite well. We can’t say for sure he’s high-status, but he’s eating relatively high-status foods.

Do you have a theory as to what may have happened to him?

I wondered whether or not he might be a metal worker. But that is one of the things about the series: the science can only take you so far. In this case, we’re left with many unanswered questions. We might have hypotheses, but we don’t have the evidence to back up anything in particular.

Which is your favourite episode in the series?

Ötzi the Iceman. He’s really interesting. They did a lot of genetic analysis on him and found out that he had Lyme disease. You can use DNA and microscopic analysis to find out what he was eating. They have done pollen analysis on him. As particular plant species grow at different altitudes, you can see what’s happening to them over the last couple of days of their life.

He starts at about 6,000 feet, then see he’s going down to the valley floor, and then he goes up to 10,000 feet. You can see the pollen at different stages in his digestive tract. So, you can work back. I thought that was just amazing. It’s like this plant GPS. The Iceman is pretty famous in our world.

What was it like teaming up with homicide detective Rod Demery?

He is looking at it through the eyes of cases that he's worked on before. He's looking at it from a completely different point of view with the eyes of a modern detective.

Out of all the cases featured in the series, which one would you like to find out what happened?

Tollund Man. He's an interesting one because you find so many of these bog bodies. What is going on there? I can think of various places I'd like to go with a time machine, but that would be one of them, to find out what happened.

Watch Ancient Murders Unearthed, Mondays at 9pm