The Battle For Richard III’s Bones

Richard III
University of Leicester

King Richard III just can’t rest in peace. He was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, and after being killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 by the rival Tudor dynasty, his body was mutilated, stabbed in the ass and buried in a hastily dug grave in the local friary in Leicester. The friary was later destroyed and his grave lost. For a while there was an outhouse right next to it. Eventually his burial site was paved over and became a parking lot.

His luck was looking better when he was rediscovered by archaeologists and his bones became a television sensation. With great fanfare Leicester Cathedral announced that it would spend £1 million ($1.6 million) on a new tomb and a museum about his life and death.

But now it looks like poor Richard won’t rest in peace quite yet. The Daily Telegraph reports that a group called the Plantagenet Alliance, which includes 15 of the king’s descendants, is challenging the decision to bury him in Leicester. The king, they say, had a long relationship with the city of York and had stated that he wanted to be buried in York Minster with the rest of his family.

Archaeologists from the University of Leicester who dug up the king had already received a court’s permission to decide where he should be reinterred and chose Leicester Cathedral. Another judge has decided to allow the Plantagenet Alliance’s complaint to go to court, however, because of the unprecedented nature of the case.

The judge, Mr. Justice Haddon-Cave, has warned both sides to keep the dispute from descending into a “War of the Roses Part Two…It would be unseemly, undignified and unedifying to have a legal tussle over these royal remains.”

Of course, the court’s decision will determine where millions of pounds in potential tourism revenue will go. There’s more than a medieval political rivalry at stake in this case.

Pyramids Discovered In Egypt And Sudan

pyramids
You’d think archaeologists would have found all the pyramids of Africa by now, but two recent discoveries show there’s a lot more discovering to be done.

A team of archaeologists working in Luxor, Egypt, have just announced they’ve discovered the pyramid of Khay, a powerful vizier of the Pharaoh Ramses II (ruled 1279-1212 B.C.). The pyramid was made of mudbrick and originally stood 49 feet high.

In the seventh and eighth century A.D. it was dismantled and turned into a Coptic Christian hermitage. Hieroglyphic writing on the surviving bricks told the archaeologists to whom the pyramid belonged.

Earlier this month, archaeologists announced they had found the bases of at least 35 broken pyramids at the site of Sedeinga in Sudan. They’re about 2,000 years old and belong to the kingdom of Kush, which lasted from c.1000 B.C. to 350 A.D. before finally being conquered by the Empire of Axum in Ethiopia. For almost a hundred years from 747-656 B.C., the Kushites ruled Egypt as the 25th dynasty.

The Sedeinga pyramids really just pyramid-shaped tombs. The largest measures 22 feet to a side, while the smallest is only 30 inches to a side. Others in Sudan, such as those at Meroë, are much more grandiose. Those at the pyramid field at Nuri, shown here courtesy Vít Hassan, are up to 150 feet tall.

Last year, a satellite survey conducted by Dr. Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama found 17 suspected pyramids.

So how could these pyramids go missing? Well, most pyramids were much smaller than the famous ones at Giza and Saqqara that we always see pictures of. Shifting sands and erosion helped hide them. In the case of the Sedeinga tombs, later people took stones from them to build other structures.

Even some sizable pyramids have all but disappeared because they were made of inferior materials. Some of the last pyramids of Egypt are barely visible today because of shoddy workmanship or having been made with mudbrick instead of stone.

Visiting Ur, Ctesiphon, And Babylon In Iraq


Iraq is an ancient land. It’s seen a lot of civilizations come and go and each one has left behind spectacular monuments and rare treasures. On a recent visit, I had the privilege to experience many of these sites. Last time, I talked about the monuments of the Assyrian Empire. Today, I want to talk about three more of Iraq’s ancient wonders.

Perhaps the most famous is Babylon. It was the political and spiritual capital of southern Mesopotamia starting with the ruler Hammurabi (ruled 1792-1550 B.C.), the same king who created the famous law code. The city had its ups and downs but reached a peak under Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 604-562 B.C.).

Babylon was home to the fabled Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens. Equally impressive were its city walls, which stretched for 8 kilometers. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus said they were wide enough on top to allow a four-horse chariot to turn around.

The story of the Tower of Babel may have been inspired by a giant stepped pyramid called a ziggurat. It was a temple to the god Marduk and stood 300 feet high. It was later quarried for its baked bricks and there’s little left. The Hanging Gardens have also vanished. What does remain are the city walls and the fabulous Ishtar Gate with its glazed brick reliefs of bulls and dragons. It was through this gate that the images of the gods would be taken in procession. The name Babylon means “the gate of the gods.”

The gate was excavated by a German team in the early 20th century and carted back to Staatliche Museen in Berlin. The gate at Babylon today is a modern reconstruction, and it’s not even full size. Far more impressive are the city walls, also reconstructed, and the original processional way, which, like the Ishtar Gate, is decorated with strange beasts.

Part of the original street level of the processional way remains – a flat surface of bitumen, an early form of asphalt. Strange to say, I found this simple stretch of pavement one of the most evocative sights in a country filled with ancient treasures. People walked along here more than 2,500 years ago, and there it was, stretched out before me. I desperately wanted to vault over the fence and stroll down the road, but even Iraq’s archaeological sites have guards and regulations. What a pity.

Babylon’s reconstruction was done under the rule of Saddam Hussein, who fancied himself one of the great kings of Mesopotamia. He got the cruelty part down pat, but missed out on the greatness. He couldn’t even do a decent reconstruction. Against the advice of the archaeological community, he built the new walls atop the originals and obliterated much of the ancient remains. In true ancient style he had bricks bearing his name used in the building. And now in true ancient style, his people have been busy erasing his name ever since his inglorious end. One of Saddam’s palaces stands on a hill overlooking the site – an empty shell.

%Gallery-172219%Ur, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
When Babylon was enjoying its heyday, the Sumerian city of Ur was already ancient. Its foundation is lost in time, stretching back at least seven thousand years. The city grew steadily and became the center of the most sophisticated civilization the world had yet seen. Writing thrived here, with scribes producing countless clay tablets written in cuneiform, a complex script of wedge-shaped impressions.

The first dynasty of Ur, starting in the 26th century B.C., was hugely wealthy and powerful. Some of Sumer’s best-known treasures come from the royal tombs dating to this period, such as elaborately decorated harps, the Royal Standard decorated with scenes of war and peace, and delicate gold jewelry from the queens, princesses and their female servants. The British Museum now owns many of them. Click the link for an amazing slideshow.

The Third Dynasty was even greater than the First and saw a flourishing of the arts and science. It also created the first known law code, the Code of Ur-Nammu, 300 years before the Code of Hammurabi. This dynasty completely rebuilt Ur and also put up the Great Ziggurat, pictured above, which got a modern facelift courtesy of Saddam Hussein.

One archaeologist I met back in the U.S. told me that during the war, Saddam parked some of his fighter planes next to the ziggurat, hoping they’d be safer there than in the nearby air force base. They got strafed by an A-10 and some of the bullets hit the ziggurat. I intended on checking for bullet holes but got so entranced with where I was that I forgot to. Maybe next time.

Zipping forward several centuries we come to Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian Empire in the first century B.C. and later the Sassanid Persian Empire. All that’s visible today is the Taq-i Kisra, shown below. This was an iwan, or great hall, built by the Sassanids in the sixth century A.D. The building was a royal winter residence and it was here in the iwan that this king would sit on his throne and rule his kingdom. The giant brick vault soars 110 feet into the air and used no reinforcement. It’s the largest of its kind ever built and despite all the years and wars and invasions, it’s still standing.

All of these sites and many more have suffered from looting and neglect in the tough years since the invasion. Luckily, a dedicated band of Iraqi and foreign archaeologists have been busy preserving them. New excavations have started and hopefully, as more incredible finds are uncovered, Iraq’s ancient past will come to light.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “The Christian Community Of Iraq!”

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Ctesiphon, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel

How Could An Ancient City Survive In The Desert?

ancient city, Palmyra, Syra
The drive through the Syrian desert to the ancient city of Palmyra makes you wonder how anyone lived out here 2000 years ago. For hours you speed east from Damascus along a dusty desert road, the only sights being a few dull concrete buildings, Bedouin with their herds and a thick black telephone line snaking along the ground next to the highway.

Once you get to Palmyra, you find a lush little oasis with splendid ruins nearby. It was here that a thriving civilization acted as the center of trade from east to west. But how did this city, which some scholars estimate had a population of 100,000, support itself? The oasis is nowhere near big enough, and the rocky, barren desert doesn’t look capable of supporting more than a few skinny goats.

Now a team of Syrian and Norwegian archaeologists has found the answer. With a combination of satellite imagery and boots on the ground, they’ve explored the region around the ancient city and discovered several ancient villages to the north. Through the clever use of dams and cisterns, the villagers were able to collect the uncommon but not rare rainfall in the region and put it to best use.

Also, tough grass lies just below the surface, its web of roots ready to capture any rain and immediately burst forth with shoots. The Bedouin would graze their flocks there, fertilizing the fields and trading with the locals.

So through an understanding of nature, an efficient use of resources and cooperating with their neighbors, the Palmyrenes brought forth a thriving civilization in the middle of the desert.

Looks like we could learn something from them.

[Photo courtesy Arian Zwegers]

Archaeologists Uncover Suburb Of Giant Largest Prehistoric City

archaeologists, Cahokia
The ancient city of Cahokia in Illinois was the center of an advanced civilization from about 700 to 1400 A.D. Covering six square miles and home to up to 20,000 people, it was the largest prehistoric city north of Mexico. It ruled over a large area and had trade networks stretching across North America.

Dozens of mounds dot the site, atop which the people built temples and homes for the elite. Cahokia’s artisans made fine work like these worked copper plates typical of the Mississippian culture that created Cahokia.

Cahokia’s importance is recognized by it being designated a state historic site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It makes a good day trip from St. Louis and has an excellent interpretive center. You can also climb up some of the mounds to get a sweeping view of the site.

Now archaeologists have discovered one of its suburbs in a derelict neighborhood of East St. Louis. It’s not much to look at today. The excavation is taking place between a derelict meatpacking plant and an abandoned strip club. Back in the day, though, it was a prosperous suburb of an important city with more than a thousand dwellings and earthen pyramids just like those of Cahokia.

Now there are plans to build a new bridge across the Mississippi at this spot. It’s hoped that the bridge will bring desperately needed visitors and investment from St. Louis, Missouri, into this part of East St. Louis, Illinois. Archaeologists are feverishly working ahead of the bulldozers to learn about this important period of America’s. They’d like to see at least some of the land preserved for a historical park but are pessimistic about their prospects.

[Image courtesy Herb Roe]