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DARREN STAPLES/Reuters/Landov
DARREN STAPLES/Reuters/Landov

5 Remarkable Things Discovered Under Parking Lots

DARREN STAPLES/Reuters/Landov
DARREN STAPLES/Reuters/Landov

There’s more to the common parking lot than broken beer bottles and fender benders from that guy who was texting. Oceans of asphalt, it seems, are hiding an astonishing trove of archeological treasures.

1. The King of England

In 1485, King Richard III of England was killed during the Battle of Bosworth Field, the last major battle of the War of the Roses. (No English king since Richard has died on the field of battle.) There aren’t a lot of positions in history loftier than Rex Anglorum, so it should give perspective to all of us that Richard’s grave is beneath a parking lot. That’s what archaeologists think, anyway. (Update: It's him!)

During his final battle, Richard led a desperate cavalry charge against Henry Tudor’s men, and didn’t go down without a fight. His last words, after finally being surrounded: “Treason! Treason! Treason!” He was killed with a pollaxe, the fateful swing delivered so powerfully that it crushed his helmet into his skull. After Richard was killed, his body was paraded in the streets until Franciscan friars took him into their care. He was interred at Greyfriars Church in Leicester.

In the five centuries that followed, the location of Greyfriars was lost. Last week, however, archaeologists announced that its ruins had been discovered beneath a parking lot used by Leicester city council functionaries. Excavations and DNA analyses are underway.

2. The Palace of Queen Helena of Adiabene

It turns out the ancient city of Jerusalem was a lot bigger than anyone thought. An archaeological team using ground penetrating radar was surveying an excavation area in the City of David, and at one point encountered, as they describe in their initial report in 2003, “something of large dimensions in the sub-surface.” Which sounds promising, until you read the next sentence: “Or there could be some other source of interference at this point causing this phenomenon.”

Nobody was really sure of what might be there. Nor were they particularly convinced that uprooting a parking lot (where the signal was discovered) was worth the effort. Digging large holes in the ground involves a non-trivial amount of red tape, but curiosity got the better of the archaeologists, and the pickaxes were brandished. They found a palace.

According to Romano-Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus, Queen Helena of Adiabene (a kingdom in Assyria, which was part of Mesopotamia and present-day Northern Iraq) converted to Judaism around the year 30 CE. During a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, she discovered the city was plagued with famine. She sent her servants to secure food from Cyprus and Alexandria, and distributed the provisions to the starving people. She later built a palace there.

Around 70 CE, the Romans sacked Jerusalem, ending the First Jewish-Roman War. The palace was destroyed during the onslaught. Eventually, the ruins were forgotten about and replaced, until modernity decided that a parking lot would look great there. Doron Ben-Ami of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem led the team that discovered Helena’s old home.

3. A Warship from the Texas Navy

When the Texas Revolution broke out in 1835, Texas ponied up for a navy of its own after previously relying on privateers. The revolutionary government bought four schoooners: the Independence, the Brutus, the Liberty, and the Invincible. The mission of this, the First Texas Navy, was to defend the Texas coastline while punching through the Mexican blockade, and to inflict maximum damage on the Mexican navy. (The United States Navy seemed to find all of this a bit annoying, and had minor incidents with the two warring navies.) Though the Republic of Texas won independence after Sam Houston crushed Santa Anna at San Jacinto, cannons continued to thunder in the Gulf of Mexico well into the following year. Ultimately, the Texas fleet was lost.

The second Texas Navy set sail in 1839. Its first steamship-of-war was the Zavala, a two-hundred-foot passenger schooner purchased for $120,000 and refitted for maritime operations. While returning to Galveston following a campaign to help part of the Yucatan Peninsula rebel against Santa Ana, the Zavala was badly damaged in a storm. It made it back to port, but was never restored, and was eventually scuttled.

In 1996, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (which was once a fictional government organization featured in Clive Cussler’s novels, and later founded by Cussler as a real, non-profit organization) announced that it had discovered the Zavala at Bean’s Wharf, in Galveston. It was beneath a parking lot used by workers at a nearby grain elevator. There it remains, marked as a historic site by the Texas State Antiquities Commission.

4. Henry VIII’s Private Chapel

Photo by Dan Rogers, courtesy of the Greenwich Foundation

The Palace of Placentia was built in 1447 and demolished in 1694 to make room for a hospital for injured soldiers. Designed by Christopher Wren, the breathtaking complex still stands today as the Old Royal Naval College, houses the University of Greenwich, and is recognized as a World Heritage Site. But over the two hundred years that followed the palace’s destruction, everyone lost track of the royal chapel, which was never actually razed. As tends to happen, a parking lot somehow ended up on top of the church where Henry VIII married at least two of his wives.

It would have remained lost to a sea of Aston Martins and Mini Coopers had a construction worker in 2006 not turned up some ancient tiles with his bulldozer. Beneath the parking lot, archaeologists discovered not only the Tudor chapel but also stained glass, the vestry, and a cobbled waterfront path.

5. The Canadian Parliament

In 1848, the parliament of the United Province of Canada passed legislation mandating responsible government, which would eventually lead to an independent state. In 1849, an angry mob burned the parliament building to the ground.

The site eventually became a public space ambiguously named “Parliament Square,” and by the 1920s, all connection with the site’s historic past was lost. It wasn’t long before someone pointed to the land and asked, “How many cars do you think we could fit there?” The cradle of Canadian democracy became a parking lot, and where once sat members of parliament now sat Honda Civics.

In 2010, archaeologists ended a twenty-year survey and started digging. Among the relics they’ve turned up so far include a portrait of Queen Victoria and some books.

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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History
How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
iStock
iStock

Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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