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Did you know DNA analyses confirmed the long-lost relic of Queen Ketevan?

Discovering the treasured arm bone of Queen (Saint) Ketevan

To the Georgian people, Queen Ketevan is a martyr and a saint. She opposed aggression, dedicated her life to religion and charity, and chose death over renouncing Christianity. This is the story of the hunt for the relics of Queen Ketevan, and how DNA analyses were used to establish the possibility that a relic found in Goa, India may indeed belong to this Saint of Georgia.

Queen Ketevan was a Christian queen of Kakheti, a kingdom in eastern Georgia. Her reign as the queen lasted just a single year, coming to an abrupt end with the sudden death of her husband (King David I) in 1602. King David’s ill father returned to the throne, until he was murdered by Constantine (another of his sons). Ketevan enlisted and led the Kekhetian nobles against this patricide, leading to the death of Constantine in battle. Despite the trauma and deaths that the enemy soldiers had caused, Ketevan ordered that they all received any necessary medical treatments and were accepted into service if they desired. She even had Constantine’s body respectfully laid to rest.

After the death of Constantine, Ketevan’s young son, Teimuraz, became the king of Kakheti, with Ketevan acting as a regent. For several years, Teimuraz reigned in peace, until the threat of attack from nearby Iranian armies. In 1613, Ketevan was sent to negotiate with Shah Abbas of Iran, and surrendered herself as an honorary hostage in a bid to protect her kingdom. Sadly, her surrender failed and a long-lasting battle began between Teimuraz and the Iranian armies. For ten years, Ketevan was kept captive in Iran, before she was tortured to death with hot pincers for refusing to renounce Christianity and convert to the Islamic faith.

Ruins of St Augustine Convent
The ruins of St Augustine Convent, Goa, India.

Ketevan’s charity, religious strengths and her wish to sacrifice herself to try to save her kingdom earned her great respect, and in the final year of her imprisonment, two friars had become close to Ketevan, earning her trust and confidence. After her death, they secretly unearthed her remains and kept them hidden for three years, before returning them to her son, Teimuraz. Most of her remains were placed at the Alaverdi cathedral, but her right arm bone was moved on to Goa, India, and kept in a stone box on a window of the St Augustine convent. According to records, the remains from Alaverdi were later lost when the horse transporting them to a safer location slipped and fell in a river.

Shortly after her death, Ketevan was canonized by the Georgian Orthodox Church, and her arm bone became a religious relic. It was protected and honored, as the St Augustine convent was enlarged and rebuilt through the 15th and 16th centuries, but by 1842, the convent had collapsed, and Ketevan’s arm bone was lost in the ruins. Since 1989, many different groups have attempted to find this religious relic. Finally after 15 years of searching, an arm bone was discovered and the intact lid of the stone relic box was found nearby. During the search, two other bone fragments were also discovered, which historical records indicated were from two Indian friars.

Excavation images
A. A view of a ruined bell tower within the St. Augustine convent. B. A general view of the excavated area. C. View of the lid of relic box of QKT1 where the long bone was located. D. Closer view of the right arm bone, along with sediments. (Figure from Rai N et al. (2014) Mitochondrion.)

The researchers turned to DNA analyses to confirm that they had really discovered the long-lost remains of Saint Ketevan. They elected to analyze mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) as a way to trace the geographical origin of the arm bone and the other two bone fragments. There are hundreds to thousands of copies of the mtDNA genome in nearly all of our cells, increasing the likelihood of obtaining suitable DNA from ancient remains. The strict maternal (mother to child) inheritance of mtDNA ensures that it remains essentially unchanged for many generations, and can be used to trace maternal lineages back hundreds of years. The analysis of mtDNA also allows the determination of mitochondrial haplogroups, which are the major branches (or family groups) of the mitochondrial evolutionary tree – the phylogenetic tree that shows how maternal lineages are all connected together.

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The two bone fragments thought to belong to two friars had mtDNA profiles (haplogroups R6a and U2a) typical of Indian populations, as would be expected for two Indian friars. The presumed arm bone of Saint Ketevan was shown to belong to haplogroup U1b – a haplogroup that is found at moderate to high frequency in Georgia, but was absent from every single one of the reference samples that were taken from people in India. The gender of this arm bone was also confirmed as female by genetic analysis of the gender-specific amelogenin marker. These DNA analyses support the archaeological findings and historical records, and the researchers were confident that the long-lost relic of Saint Ketevan had been found.

With its identity confirmed, the much-anticipated relic can now be honored and respected by all those that value the heroic Saint Ketevan. These genetic analyses have also defined the mtDNA profile of Saint Ketevan and two Indian friars. If you have taken the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, you can compare your mtDNA against these profiles to see if you may have descended from one of the same maternal lineages.

Reference:

Rai N et al. (2014) Relic excavated in western India is probably of Georgian Queen Ketevan. Mitochondrion. 14(1):1-6.

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