5 Remarkable Things Discovered Under Parking Lots

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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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September 12, 2012 - 8:11am
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