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
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT