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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Interactive Map Shows Where Your House Would Have Been 750 Million Years Ago
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Your neighborhood traveled a long way over several hundred million years to reach the spot it occupies today. To trace that journey over the ages, check out Ancient Earth, an interactive digital map spotted by Co.Design.

Ancient Earth, a collaboration between engineer and Google alum Ian Webster and Paleomap Project creator C.R. Scotese, contains geographical information for the past 750 million years. Start at the beginning and you'll see unrecognizable blobs of land. As you progress through the ages, the land mass Pangaea gradually breaks apart to form the world map we're all familiar with.

To make the transition even more personal, you can enter your street address to see where it would have been located in each period. Five hundred million years ago, for example, New York City was a small island in the southern hemisphere isolated from any major land mass. Around the same time, London was still a part of Pangaea, and it was practically on top of the South Pole. You can use the arrows on your keyboard to flip through the eras or jump from event to event, like the first appearance of multicellular life or the dinosaur extinction.

As you can see from the visualization, Pangaea didn't break into the seven continents seamlessly. Many of the long-gone continents that formed in the process even have names.

[h/t Co.Design]

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The Body
11 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.

1. THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS CALLED IT THE "WORM" OF THE BOWEL.

The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."

2. THE APPENDIX SHOWS UP IN LEONARDO DA VINCI’S DRAWINGS.

The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.

3. IT'S ABOUT THE SIZE OF A PINKY FINGER.

The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.

4. CHARLES DARWIN THOUGHT IT WAS A VESTIGIAL ORGAN …

The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.

5. … BUT THE APPENDIX PROBABLY EVOLVED TO HELP IMMUNE FUNCTION.

The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.

6. ABOUT 7 PERCENT OF AMERICANS WILL GET APPENDICITIS DURING THEIR LIFETIMES.

For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.

7. APPENDECTOMIES ARE ALMOST 100 PERCENT EFFECTIVE FOR TREATING APPENDICITIS.

Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.

8. AN INFECTED APPENDIX DOESN’T ACTUALLY BURST.

You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.

9. SURGEONS CAN REMOVE AN APPENDIX THROUGH A TINY INCISION.

In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.

10. AN APPENDIX ONCE POSTPONED A ROYAL CORONATION.

When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.

11. THE WORLD'S LONGEST APPENDIX MEASURED MORE THAN 10 INCHES.

On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."

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