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Lost Tombs

In search of history's greatest rulers


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

ruler-textThe improbable discovery last year of Richard III’s skeleton under a parking lot in Leicester, England, is a reminder that while some burials of great historical figures are lost to posterity, careful archaeological sleuthing could still bring them to light. The debate over where to rebury the notorious English king illustrates how important finding the physical remains of these lost rulers can be. And study of Richard III’s remains promises to add to our understanding of both the man himself and the time he lived in. Finding a ruler’s lost tomb may be the most romantic discovery possible in archaeology, but it can also be an opportunity to create a richer picture of ancient life.


Here are the stories behind the lost final resting places of seven great royal figures, which, if found, could give us exciting insights into our collective past. We’ve also added one burial to the list no archaeologist would ever seek out.

Miniature Pyramids of Sudan

Archaeologists excavating on the banks of the Nile have uncovered a necropolis where hundreds of small pyramids once stood


Monday, June 10, 2013




Nearly two thousand years after the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu marshaled armies of workers to build his 480-foot-tall Great Pyramid of Giza, the armies of Nubia (a region that is now in Sudan) invaded and occupied Egypt. It was 730 B.C. and, by then, the Egyptian pharaohs had long since abandoned the practice of erecting massive tombs. It was expensive to do so, and it had nearly bankrupted them. But the pyramids clearly fascinated the Nubian kings. They ruled Egypt during the 25th Dynasty, until they were ejected in 656 B.C., but Egypt’s influence on their own cultural practices was long-lasting. As ongoing archaeological work shows, the inhabitants of Nubia, particularly those in the kingdom of Meroe, found a way to imitate Egypt’s monuments. At the Meroitic royal cemetery, 80 radically downsized pyramids were constructed over the tombs of kings and queens. And now, new excavations at Sedeinga, a necropolis of the same era but 450 miles from Meroe, tell us that the practice of building diminutive pyramids trickled down from royals to the wealthy elite much more extensively than previously believed. Sedeinga contains a dense field of small pyramids, one just 30 inches across. “It is a crazy site,” says Vincent Francigny, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History and codirector of the excavations at Sedeinga. “I’ve never seen a cemetery like this, with so many small monuments packed so closely together.”


meroe-sedeinga2Since a French explorer first described the cemetery at Meroe in the early nineteenth century, archaeologists have identified the remains of more than 220 royal pyramids in Sudan. Excavations show that early in the Meroitic period (ca. 300 B.C.–A.D. 350), pyramids were built exclusively for those of noble blood. “It would have been sacrilege to erect a pyramid for a nonroyal person,” says Francigny. But later in the kingdom’s history the taboo was relaxed somewhat, and a few wealthy people were allowed to erect monuments for themselves. But their pyramids never rivaled the royals’ in size. Royal or not, Nubians would have viewed the pyramids much as the ancient Egyptians did. For the pharaohs, pyramids were symbols of the sun, their massive, steep sides representing the angle of the sun’s rays reaching earth. The people of Meroe elaborated on this theme by adding capstones to their pyramids shaped in classic Egyptian forms, such as birds or lotuses emerging from solar discs.


In Meroe, two scripts were used that were also inspired by Egypt. But the Meroitic language was considered untranslatable until philologist Claude Rilly, who heads the French Archaeological Mission to Sudan, made some headway beginning in the 1990s. Fewer than 2,000 Meroitic inscriptions are known to exist, many of them funerary inscriptions. To continue his translation effort, Rilly needed more. But he had a problem: Rising waters from dam projects on the Nile over the past decade have inundated most of the recently discovered Meroitic-era cemeteries. The nonroyal cemetery of Sedeinga, which lies on the west bank of the Nile, not far from the Egyptian border, is one of the few already known sites left in Sudan where archaeologists can still excavate graves from the Meroitic period. Rilly and Francigny, an expert in Meroitic funerary monuments, reasoned that uncovering burials at Sedeinga could turn up all-important new inscriptions. This, in large part, is what led them to assemble a team to begin excavating at the site in 2009.

The First Vikings

Two remarkable ships may show that the Viking storm was brewing long before their assault on England and the continent


Monday, June 10, 2013



According to historians, the Viking Age began on June 8, A.D. 793, at an island monastery off the coast of northern England. A contemporary chronicle recorded the moment with a brief entry: “The ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.” The “heathen men” were Vikings, fierce warriors who sailed from Scandinavia and bore down on their prey in Europe and beyond in sleek, fast-sailing ships. In the centuries that followed, the Vikings’ vessels carried them deep into Russia and as far south as Constantinople, Sicily, and possibly even North Africa. They organized flotillas capable of carrying warriors across vast distances, and terrorized the English, Irish, and French coasts with lightning-fast raids. Exploratory voyages to the west took them all the way to North America.


The Vikings’ explosion across Europe and Asia and into the Americas was the result of the right combination of tools, technology, adventurousness, and ferocity. They came to be known as an unstoppable force capable of raiding and trading on four continents, yet our understanding of what led up to that June day on Lindisfarne is surprisingly shaky. A recent discovery on a remote Baltic island is beginning to change that. Two ships filled with slain warriors uncovered on the Estonian island of Saaremaa may help archaeologists and historians understand how the Vikings’ warships evolved from short-range, rowed craft to sailing ships; where the first warriors came from; and how their battle tactics developed. “We all agree these burials are Scandinavian in origin,” says Marge Konsa, an archaeologist at the University of Tartu. “This is our first taste of the Viking era.”


Between them, the two boats contain the remains of dozens of men. Seven lay haphazardly in the smaller of the two boats, which was found first. Nearby, in the larger vessel, 33 men were buried in a neat pile, stacked like wood, together with their weapons and animals. The site seems to be a hastily arranged mass grave, the final resting place for Scandinavian warriors killed in an ill-fated raid on Saaremaa, or perhaps waylaid on a remote beach by rivals. The archaeologists believe the men died in a battle some time between 700 and 750, perhaps almost as much as a century before the Viking Age officially began. This was an era scholars call the Vendel period, a transitional time not previously known for far-reaching voyages—or even for sails. The two boats themselves bear witness to the tremendous technological transformations in the eighth-century Baltic.


In 2008, workers digging trenches for electrical cables in the tiny island town of Salme uncovered human bones and a variety of odd objects that they unceremoniously piled next to their trench. Local authorities at first assumed the remains belonged to a luckless WWII soldier, until Konsa arrived and recognized a spearhead and carved-bone gaming pieces among the artifacts, clear signs the remains belonged to someone from a much earlier conflict. Together with a small team, Konsa dug a little deeper and soon found traces of a boat’s hull. Nearly all of the craft’s timber had rotted away, leaving behind only discolorations in the soil. But 275 of the iron rivets holding the boat together remained in place, allowing the researchers to reconstruct the outlines of the 38-foot-long craft.


Soon Konsa realized she had found something unique for this place and period. “This isn’t a fishing boat, it’s a war boat,” Konsa says. “It’s quite fast and narrow, and also quite light.” Based on radiocarbon dating of tiny fragments of boat timbers, Konsa estimates the vessel was built between 650 and 700, and perhaps repaired and patched for decades before making its final voyage. It had no sail, and would have been rowed for short stretches along the Baltic coast, or between islands to make the journey from Scandinavia to the seafarers’ hunting grounds farther east. From bones found inside the boat, Konsa pieced together the remains of the seven men, all between the ages of 18 and 45. She also found knives, whetstones, and a bone comb among the remains. The craft was a remarkable find—the first such boat ever recovered in Estonia, complete with the bodies of its slain crew.