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
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT