Monday, July 29, 2013

Lost Tombs - In search of history's greatest rulers

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The 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.

Nefertiti, Great Royal Wife and Queen of Egypt

Ruled ca. 1348-1330 B.C.

In the 1880s, residents living near the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna discovered a large multichambered rock-cut tomb. It was one of many such tombs at Amarna, but its impressive size distinguished it from the others. Unfortunately, the tomb, called Amarna 26, has been badly damaged by looters, weather, and time, and many of the most significant artifacts were removed at some point, either in antiquity or more recently. Relatively little of the tomb’s fragile decoration is intact. Nevertheless, enough inscribed artifacts do survive—including more than 200 shabti figurines, an alabaster chest, and two large granite sarcophagi—that archaeologists are reasonably certain the tomb, also called the Royal Tomb, belonged to the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten and his daughter Meketaten.

But the Royal Tomb also contains a third, unfinished chamber whose royal resident is unknown.Could it perhaps be the tomb of Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti? Egyptologist Marc Gabolde of Paul Valéry University, who has been searching for Nefertiti’s tomb, thinks so. “I now believe that Nefertiti died a few months before Akhenaten and was buried at Amarna, despite the fact that her suite in the Royal Tomb was unfinished.” But at least one other scholar is less certain. “I do not think it is likely that she was buried in Amarna,” says archaeologist Barry Kemp of the University of Cambridge, director of the Amarna Project. “Or, at least, nothing found in the tomb suggests that it had housed burial equipment for her,” Kemp adds. “She could have been buried at Thebes, or on the now utterly robbed necropolis at Gurob; or she could have been taken back to her home city of Akhmim and buried in the ancestral cemetery there. We may never know.”

Alexander the Great, King of Macedon

Ruled 336-323 B.C.

When St. John Chrysostom visited Alexandria in A.D. 400, he asked to see Alexander’s burial place, adding, “His tomb even his own people know not.” It is a question that continues to be asked now, 1,613 years later. Alexander died in the Mesopotamian capital of Babylon in 323 B.C., perhaps from poisoning, malaria, typhoid, West Nile fever, or grief over the death of his best friend, Hephaestion. For two years, Alexander’s mummified remains, housed in a golden sarcophagus, lay in state, a pawn in the game of royal succession. Finally, it was decided that Alexander would be buried in Greece at Aegae, the first capital of the Macedonian kings. But according to ancient sources, his hearse was hijacked near Damascus and the corpse taken to Egypt, first to Memphis, and, some time between 298 and 283 B.C., to Alexandria, the city he had founded and named after himself.

There, Alexander was interred in at least two tombs in different locations, the more notable of which ancient authors, such as Strabo, Plutarch, and Pausanias, identify as a mausoleum called the Soma, meaning “body” in ancient Greek. The Soma was repeatedly robbed—the golden sarcophagus was melted down and replaced with one made of glass or crystal. Even Cleopatra took gold from the tomb to pay for her war against Octavian (soon to be the emperor Augustus). There were subsequent visits to the tomb by numerous Roman emperors and then, beginning in A.D. 360, a series of events that included warfare, riots, an earthquake, and a tsunami, threatened—or perhaps destroyed—the tomb by the time of Chrysostom’s visit. From that point on, Alexander’s tomb can be considered lost. And despite centuries of relentless searching by archaeologists, authors, and amateurs, it remains so.

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