Can Richard the Third ever rest in peace? Last month “The Plantagenet Alliance”, an association of fifteen individuals who claim direct descent from the monarch, instructed Gordons LLP (solicitors) on a potential Judicial Review of The Ministry of Justice’s decision to grant an excavation licence to Leicester University. The licence stipulates that the remains of King Richard the Third should be deposited in either Leicester’s Jewry Wall Museum or St. Martin’s Cathedral. The petitioners have indicated that they will cite a breach in Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights with respect to private and family life. York Minster, beloved of Richard, should be granted the honour of burial, not Leicester. This is the view of the descendents. The Ministry of Justice, it will be claimed, should have consulted the relatives of the deceased.
It is thanks to the dedication of Leicester University’s archaeologists that we can even contemplate a reburial. And were it not for Caroline Wilkinson, an expert in craniofacial identification, we would not now go head to head with the king. But interment aside, few may realise that it’s on account of villainy, or its pursuit, that we can stare at the reconstructed king. Richard re-figured, the modelled fine young man with delicate features, is part of a darker legacy; it is one in which Stalin enlisted the Soviet anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov to exhumed the body, and then reconstruct the face, of Timur, (Tamerlaine), Central Asia’s brutal emperor.
Long before the world became digital forensic reconstruction was a purely mechanical skill. It was pioneered by Mikhail Gerasimov (1907-1970) who discerned the relationship between the skull and soft tissue by reference to paleontology, archaeology, anthropology and forensic science. By arriving at the age, sex and specific characteristics of the cranium, Gerasimov could then build the reconstructed face in several stages. He would start with the skull and add layer upon layer of facial muscle until it conformed to the average depth of tissue (known from previous dissections). Thereafter Gersimov discerned the loci of eyes, nose and shape of the mouth before sculpting with modelling clay.
In 1941, while working at the Institute of Material Culture in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), Gerasimov was summoned by Joseph Stalin to exhume the bodies of Timur and his relatives who lay buried in the Gur Emir Mausoleum of Samarkand in the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. By this time Gerasimov had already honed his technique on over a dozen ancient subjects as well as two members of the Russian nobility in the preceding 15 years. Yet it was the exhumation of Timur that was to bring Gerasimov’s work to the general public at large.
Kok Gumbaz Mosque, Shakhrisabz, Uzbekistan
Stalin’s motivations remain unclear. Was it fascination with a warrior who terrorized all in his path? Or was it fabled Samarkand, a place where heroism and villainy go hand in hand? It is conjecture but I’d have to say Stalin’s curiosity was far more materialistic than romantic. A glance into the 15th Century narratives of Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, the Castilian ambassador to the court of Timur, reveals that upon Timur’s death in 1405 news of his passing was concealed until the courtiers “could secure the treasure; but they could not keep it so close; but that some of the knights and followers knew it.” Arguably some of this treasure might have found its way to Timur’s grave only to be plundered years later.
That’s enough of the speculation. What we do know is that, as with Richard, rulers do not always get their way when it comes to the grave. Timur intended to be laid to rest in the mausoleum of Shakhrisabz, the town of his birth, not the capital, Samarkand. In the latter city, a jade cenotaph, commissioned by Timur’s grandson, now marks the spot. The monumental stone, once the largest slab of jade the world had ever known, reveals the epitaph, “when I rise from the dead the world will tremble”, itself commissioned by the grandson not the emperor. Directly below the cenotaph is the crypt. Here Gerasimov found the interred warrior-king in a stone sarcophagus with a very different inscription; a usurper narrative. It perpetuated myth and sought to align Timur with Genghis Khan and Islam’s Fourth Caliph, Ali.
Grave and Cenotaph of Timur (Tamerlaine), Gur Emir Mausoleum, Samarkand.
I remember thinking that the crypt was strangely not very impressive, at least not for someone of Timur’s stature. That was in 2004 when I just passed through Samarkand after a stint in the hinterland of Turkmenistan and Western Uzbekistan.
Nearly ten years on Timur does rise from the dead. Gerasimov’s work finds itself in sculptural bronze throughout Uzbekistan. Timur’s image, based almost exclusively on Gerasimov’s reconstruction, is ubiquitous. It has become emblematic of a nation divorcing itself from a Soviet past. But as anyone knows, divorce is not so straight-forward. Were it not for Stalin, a man who stamped out any form of regional nationalism, Uzbeks would not now gaze upon the face of their national hero.
Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in the article above are those of the author alone.