Skip to main content

After Richard III, can we find Genghis Khan?

By Paul R. Mullins, Special to CNN
February 12, 2013 -- Updated 1918 GMT (0318 HKT)
The skull of Richard III. The skull of Richard III.
HIDE CAPTION
See how history transformed Richard III
See how history transformed Richard III
See how history transformed Richard III
See how history transformed Richard III
See how history transformed Richard III
See how history transformed Richard III
See how history transformed Richard III
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Mullins: The odds of discovering Richard III's remains were exceptionally slim
  • Mullins: Archaeologists rarely search for individuals, let alone lost monarchs
  • He says that some personalities fascinate us, including Amelia Earhart, Genghis Khan
  • Mullins: Big discoveries can give us compelling glimpses into past history and culture

Editor's note: Paul R. Mullins is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University, docent in historical archaeology at the University of Oulu in Finland, and president of the Society for Historical Archaeology. He is the author of "The Archaeology of Consumer Culture."

(CNN) -- The world now knows that the remains of Richard III -- the final Plantagenet king of England who fell at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 -- were under a parking lot. By most accounts, the dead monarch's corpse was unceremoniously carried back to nearby Leicester and buried at the church of the Greyfriars, where it was lost for more than 500 years.

The odds that archaeologists might recover Richard III's remains more than a half millennium later were exceptionally slim. After DNA testing and further analysis, the University of Leicester Archaeological Services was able to confirm beyond a reasonable doubt that the skeleton indeed was that of Richard III.

Archaeologists rarely search for individuals, let alone lost monarchs, and the Leicester excavation was focused on analyzing the medieval friary at which Richard III was rumored to be buried. Nevertheless, archaeologists share the popular curiosity about famous personalities and the larger stories their lives and mortal remains might tell.

Paul R. Mullins
Paul R. Mullins

If we are excavating missing people from Richard III's past, then we should start with the remains of the so-called "Princes in the Tower" -- that is, his nephews Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury.

Richard III: Is this the face that launched 1,000 myths?

The princes were held in the Tower of London and likely murdered around 1483 at Richard III's command. Their rumored remains now rest under Westminster Abbey, and a survey of the remains in 1933 found two youth's partial skeletons with a random mix of animal bones. DNA analysis alone is not enough to seal this case, however, and any conclusion would neither incriminate Richard III nor prove his innocence, so such a study would mostly be a public curiosity.

Amelia Earhart's plane went down in the Pacific in 1937, unleashing decades of curiosity about the fate of Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan. Earhart has long been viewed as a symbol of bravery and feminism, and after intensive but unsuccessful efforts to locate her in 1937, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery attempted to find Earhart in the late 1980s. Enlisting archaeologist Tom King, a shoe was recovered in a location with circumstantial evidence of Earhart's plane, but nothing substantial has turned up.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



An interesting archaeological mystery is the disappearance of the Roanoke colony from contemporary North Carolina in 1587. An English crew left the Roanoke colony that August with plans to return the following year, but by the time the English returned in 1590, the settlement was empty. The missing colonists might have been wiped out by indigenous neighbors, captured by those neighbors or joined those native communities.

An archaeological investigation by East Carolina University recovered some 16th century material culture, including a ring linked to a colonist. But shoreline erosion removed much of the archaeological evidence associated with the colony. DNA testing has also been conducted with the argument that the colony became part of the neighboring indigenous groups. Nevertheless, there's been no satisfying evidence to resolve precisely what happened to the Roanoke colony.

Few historical figures inspire as much curiosity as Genghis Khan, the military leader and empire builder who unified the disparate groups scattered across present-day Mongolia. When he died in 1227, Genghis Khan was buried in an exceptionally well-concealed, unmarked tomb whose location had become a mystery a century later.

The king in the parking lot
The woman who found Richard III

A 2003 study suggested that nearly 8% of the men living in the former Mongol Empire share a genetic lineage that was likely descended from Khan and his male relatives. Eight centuries later, Khan's lost tomb would shed light on the ritual practices associated with one of history's most powerful empires and its best-known leader.

As we continue to be captivated by the dramatic discovery of Richard III's remains, we should keep in mind that it's just one piece of material culture from a complex site that tells a story that will reach well beyond the mere hunt for a monarch's grave.

What the excavation reveals about medieval warfare, life among the wealthiest 15th century people and everyday life in a late medieval friary could be even more compelling.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. Mullins.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT