“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
The past can be both shocking and familiar. It’s common to say that human nature never changes – but it’s still possible for archaeology to surprise us, by pulling things from the ground which transform our conception of the past.
1. Rosetta Stone
A stele (or stela) is a stone tablet, usually taller in dimensions than it is wide. In ancient Egypt these were popular for commemorative us as after-life rituals. When one of them were accidentally rediscovered in 1799 by French team of archaeologists, it kick-started the modern era of treasure hunt and Egyptology – reiterating a decree issued nearly 2000 years ago (by King Ptolemy). The decree of Rosetta stone was passed in Ancient Greek, Hieroglyphic illustrations as well as Demotic. Re-purposed as a building material in Middle Ages, today it lies in a British Museum, following a 1801 invasion and conquest.
2. Dead Sea Scrolls
For several years, historians believed in existence of biblical and extra-biblical documents, including lifestyle and early civilization guidelines by the Essenes, an ancient Jewish sect. The concrete proof arrived in the 1950s, when archaeologists uncovered priceless set of nearly a thousand of those from the area which is the present-day West Bank. The manuscripts are written in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic – sometimes with highly symbolic and esoteric references. However, most scholars agree that they outline the 700 year timeline around the birth of Jesus Christ. The materials used – parchment, bronze and papyrus has been remarkably resilient and surprisingly has kept much of vital details intact.
The fury of Mount Vesuvius had buried the ancient Roman city of Pompeii in 79 AD. The volcanic eruption was so furious that it found mention in some ancient historical logs. However the damages were so severe and complete that over time the memories of the city were erased from public consciousness, much like the city itself. It was only in 1738, Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre, a military engineer with the Spanish army dug out remains of Herculaneum, a nearby city which had suffered a similar fate. Nearly a decade later, Giuseppe Fiorelli rediscovered Pompeii. He found that some of the large bubbles embedded in volcanic mud were exact casts of human forms who were buried alive. Using plaster of Paris to create the casts, he was one of the first people to truly show the modern world how ancient Roman human race used to be. They also found several artifacts, some even as late as 2000-01, which were steeped in erotic and sexual associations. Even a graffiti found in the ancient city walls read “City of Sodom and Gomorrah”. Devout Christians have since come to believe that Pompeii’s destruction was merely God’s retribution for their perverse sexual digressions.
4. The Cave of Altamira
Thanks to some of the cave-art by early mankind and our impression of it through documentaries, our impression about the capabilities of early human race’s artistic abilities were at best that of ‘qualified appreciation’. It all changed with the discovery of Cave of Altamira by amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola. Hunter Modesto Peres first discovered it, which led Sautuola to start exploring the caves which were reasonably known, albeit locally, for ancient art preserved within. However, his nine year old daughter Maria drew his attention towards the ceiling of the caves which were replete with incredibly mature art of animal figures, especially bisons. It led to massive controversial debates. Noted historians dismissing the work as too advanced for pre-historic human race. Nearly two decades of modern dating and verification later the Altamira caves were established as genuine Paleolithic art and it shattered the notions about abilities of prehistoric artists forever.
“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement.” Those are the words of Howard Carter – the man who discovered King Tut’s tomb. They sum up far better than I can the marvelousness of this most important Egyptian discovery in modern times. The importance of this discovery to the understanding of Ancient Egyptian history is probably the greatest ever.
6. Mother goddesses
Willendorf Venus, one of the oldest man-made human figurines depicts an obese woman with full, pendulous breasts. While the ancient human may or may not have fed themselves to such extent, the symbolism of fertility, pregnancy and round female figure was not lost on archaeologists. The statue dates back to nearly 26,000 years and was uncovered in Austria. Since then, many civilizations – most notably the Mesopotamian and Indus Valley excavations have revealed a common thread of mother Goddess and worship of female force. Ancient history is replete with symbolism and central role of a female.
The Bronze Age archaeological site of Knossos was a significant turning point in reconstructing the Greek civilization of nearly 3,500 to 4000 years ago. Built around the city of Crete, the city finds several references in ancient Roman texts and coins – also deriving its name from it. When the site was re-discovered in 1878 by Arthur Evans (Britain) and Minos Kalokairinos (Greece) it triggered fresh interest in uncovering long lost legends about Minotaur’s labyrinth, not least because of an illustration of a raging bull at the entrance.
8. Antikythera Mechanism
When a massive ball of fused metal was found among usual shipwreck items of flasks, coins and statues by the sponge divers off the coast of Greece in 1901, it didn’t seem particularly relevant beyond a curious antique. Today however, it is regarded as the father of modern computing devices.
With its several wheels, spokes and cogs aligned to predict eclipses, astronomical positions and celestial movements of stars and planets with surprising accuracy it is one of the earliest devices to understand astronomy and science. Designed by Greek scientists, it is believed to date back to nearly 100-150 BC.
9. The Pilate Stone
The Pilate stone is perhaps the first authentic proof of Biblical reference to Pontius Pilate. Discovered in Caesarea area of Judea, the stone was supposedly used as a material for a staircase in 4th century AD as part of the new structure added to an Ancient Roman theater which existed for nearly 40 years. Noted archaeologist Dr. Antonio Frova and his team found the stone to be inscribed with something which roughly translates to “To the Divine Augusti [this] Tiberieum … Pontius Pilate … prefect of Judea … has dedicated [this]”. It is universally recognized as genuine evidence.
10. Olduvai Gorge
Running across the steep ravines of Tanzania for nearly 30 miles, the Oldulvai Gorge hosts perhaps one of the oldest known human establishments. The site dates back to nearly 2 million years-old human dwellers, includes their tools, progressive evolutionary evidence of human race and even signs of scavenging (with animal bones excavated with teeth marks rather than marks of hunting weapons). Together with several rock-art samples, this forms one of the single largest archaeological sites.
11. Hagar Qim
“I have been visiting the prehistoric ruins all-round the Mediterranean, from Mesopotamia to Egypt, Greece and Switzerland, but I have nowhere seen a place as old as this one.” – Vere Gordon Childe, Professor of Prehistoric European Archeology.
While the oldest of the Egyptian pyramids date back to around 2670 BC, the Megalithic temples of Hagar Qim (Malta) pre-date those easily by nearly another 600-1000 years. Dated to nearly 3600-3200 BC, these free-standing structures are part of a UNESCO heritage site, pre-dating the more famous Stonehenge or similar Neolithic structures. They were excavated in early part of 19th century.
12. The Terracotta Army in Xi’an
Discovered in March, 1974 – the funereal army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of Chine includes a massive collection of eight thousand soldiers, over a hundred chariots and distinct horses, and several officials, acrobats and courtesans as a man-made site of tribute to one of the most influential historical figures of the region. A group of farmers uncovered the site, but much remains buried still – partly owing to reverence towards the emperor. It is part of an entire necropolis built around what is believed to be an auspicious site for the emperor’s mausoleum. Gold and Jade mines flank the landscape.
When Greek archaeology expert Manolis Andronikos proclaimed the discovery of the burial site of Macedonian kings in Vergina (northern Greece) in 1977, it was received with equal parts ridicule and curiosity. However, the location of Vergina on the peripheris of Imathia, once a part of central Macedonian reaches provided the first clue that the claims may be true. Since then, there were more undisturbed tombs found (1990) and modern dating has proven the claims to be true. One of the tombs belong to Phillip II, the father of famous conqueror Alexander the Great.
14. Staffordshire hoard
In July 2009, the site of Hammerwich village in Lichfield, Staffordshire (UK) became the latest addition to significant recent archaeological conquests. The site includes the largest collection of Gold, silver and metal object collection from the Anglo-Saxon era of 7th – 8th centuries. The kingdom Mercia, which is attributed with these precious items, supposedly had the owners bury these in times of danger, with an intention to return to them once the times were favorable. There are over three thousand martial items to latest count and generally associated for male use.
15. Baghdad batteries
Created during the ancient Parthian era and Sassanid period (1st to 3rd century AD), the Parthian batteries (or Baghdad Batteries) are a significant discovery pertaining to Mesopotamian civilization. The jars found have cyndrical iron cladding with a copper spike encased within. Evidence is pending, but theories are abounding regarding the containers being filled with grape juice – causing the electrochemical couple to produce a voltage potential. The modern reconstructions have proven that the voltages would have been good enough to produce electricity. If evidences support it, these discoveries from Khuyut Rabbou’a in Iraq (1936) may just pre-date the Alessandro Volta’s moment of fame (modern electrochemical cell) by nearly a thousand years..
16. Roman dodecahedra
It isn’t often that an entire class of artifacts completely stumps historians, archaeologists and anthropologists regarding their impact and possible purpose. A Roman dodecahedron is one such genre which has largely remained a mystery. A small hollow object with twelve flat pentagonal faces, each hosting a circular hole of varying diameter, perfectly at its center – the dodecahedron has a hollowed-out center and is tentatively dated back to 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.
The items have been recovered across Europe in regions as diverse as Wales, Hungary, France and Germany. The geometric precision has led some to believe it had some scientific use like astronomy and distance estimation while others theorized decorative purposes like candle holders (unlikely in the era of oil lamps). Regardless, these remain an important discovery with little understanding.
17. Ancient antibiotics
Earliest signs of antibiotic use are found in bones excavated in Nubia (Sudan) with tetracycline labels. While tetracycline is still used as an antibiotic today, the history of modern medicinal use of such treatment is a mere seven decades. The only possible explanation comes from the fact that the yeasts producing tetracycline might have been an ingredient of ancient Nubian alcoholic beverages. But did that form part of the diet for children too? Well, at 550 AD they sure were not getting ID’d!
18. Stone spears
The sharp, pointed tip spear-like stone heads found in South Africa were dated to be nearly 200,000 years old. This forced the hunting history of mankind to be recalibrated back to a time much earlier than previously thought possible. Given that cooking fires were found to be dated back to an even more primitive time (one million years ago), it seems now that men were hunting for food since a long time back
19. Ancient Chemical Warfare
It is an established fact now that Iran was indulging in ‘chemical weapons’ long before USA called them out as a ‘threat’. The ancient site of a Persian/ Roman battlefield, which was excavated by Robert du Mesnil du Buisson in 1933 revealed the stunning archaeological fact. It hosted bodies of 19 Roman soldiers, with many of them seemingly trying to escape and even a few Persian soldiers clutching their chests. The alleged events include an effort by the Roman army to drop in on Persian army men who were trying to dig a tunnel under their walls. Except that the Persian heard them and set a trap. When the Roman soldiers finally broke in, they met sulfurous vapors burnt in bitumen coal which turns into corrosive acids in the lungs once inhaled.
20. Diquis Spheres
Found in Costa Rica, the perfectly round spheres were carved out of stone (dated 600 AD – 1000 AD) and belong to Isthmo-Colombian era. Banana plantation workers discovered them in 1930s. While they damaged some stones trying to move them with bulldozers or blowing them up with dynamite (hoping for hidden treasures) majority of them are intact. The purpose is still unknown.
21. Wonders of Sanxingdui
The archaeological site of Sanxingdui, China is a Bronze Age site (circa 2800 to 800 B.C.) located in the town of Guanghan of Sichuan Province .
Sanxingdui is recognized as one of the most important ancient remains in the world for its vast size, lengthy period and enriched cultural contents.
The first Sanxingdui relics were discovered by a farmer in 1929 and excavation has continued ever since. During this period, generations of archaeologists have worked on the discovery and research of the Sanxingdui culture. In 1986, two major sacrificial pits were found and they aroused widespread academic attention around the world.
The Sanxingdui finds are exciting, but they remain enigmatic. No texts have been found, nor is there any mention of this culture in the records of other countries.
The artifact assemblage recovered from this site includes an enormous number of bronze, jade, gold, pottery and bone, discovered in ten caches. The two richest contained more than 1100 artifacts. Analysis of lead and other elements in the bronzes indicates sources similar to those of other cultures along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. At this point, however, the unique culture that produced these artifacts remains a mystery.
22. Rapa Nui
Popularly known as Easter Island, this is one of the most isolated places in the world, thousands of miles off of the Chilean coast in the South Pacific. The most baffling thing about the island, however, isn’t the fact that humans even managed to find and settle it but that they then proceeded to construct enormous stone heads around the island.
23. Piri Reis Map
Dating to the early 1500s this map shows the coastlines of South America, Europe, and Africa with amazing precision. Apparently it was constructed by general and cartographer Piri Reis (hence the name) from the fragments of dozens of others.
24. Nazca Lines
Although they were literally beneath the feet of archaeologists for hundreds of years, the Nazca Lines weren’t discovered until the early 1900′s for the simple reason that they are nearly impossible to see unless you are directly above them. While there have been numerous explanations ranging from UFO’s to technically advanced ancient civilization, the most probable explanation is that the Nazca people were excellent surveyors, although why they would construct such enormous geoglyphs remains a mystery.
25. Mount Owen Moa
In 1986 an expedition was making its deeper and deeper into the cave system of Mount Owen in New Zealand when it came across the huge claw you’re now looking at. It was so well preserved that it almost seemed like whatever it belonged to had just died recently. Upon excavation and inspection, however, it was determined to belong to an Upland Moa, a large prehistoric bird that apparently came with a nasty set of claws.
26. Voynich Manuscript
Described as the “world’s most mysterious manuscript” this piece of literature has been dated back to early 15th century Italy. With most of its pages filled with what seems to be herbal recipes, none of the plants match known species and the language remains undecipherable.
27. Gobekli Tepe
Although at first glance it may seem like nothing more than a bunch of rocks, this ancient settlement discovered in 1994 was constructed roughly 9,000 years ago and is currently the one of the oldest examples of complex/monumental architecture in the world, predating the pyramids by thousands of years.
This walled complex just outside of Cusco, Peru is part of what used to be the capital of the Inca Empire. The crazy part about this wall, however, is in the details of its construction. The rock slabs fit together so tightly that it would be impossible to slide even a hair between them. It’s a testament to the precision of ancient Incan architecture.
29. Headless Vikings of Dorset
While digging a railroad in Dorset workers came across a small contingent of viking warriors buried in the ground, all missing their heads. At first archaeologists thought that maybe some villagers had survived a raid and exacted their revenge but upon closer inspection things got a little less clear. The beheadings looked too clean and seemed to have been done from the front rather than the back. They are still not sure what happened.
30. The Tomb of Sunken Skulls
While excavating a dry lake bed in Motala, Sweden archaeologists came across several skulls that had stakes driven directly through their craniums. As if that weren’t bad enough one of the skulls even had pieces of the others skulls crammed up inside it. Whatever happened there 8,000 years ago wasn’t pretty.
Marcahuasi is a plateau in the Andes Mountains located east of Lima, Peru. The area rises over the Rimac River. In 1952, a man named Daniel Ruzo made a remarkable discovery in the area. He found hundreds of stone figures that resemble human faces and animals, some 90 feet tall. The most famous formation was called The Monument to Humanity because it purportedly shows the major human races of the world. The mountain sized rock formations of Marcahuasi have created controversy in the scientific world. Many educated people have claimed that the structures were formed by natural erosion.
Some of the famous rock formations at Marcahuasi include the goddess Thueris the Anfichelidia, the valley of the seals, the lion of Africa, the vicuna, and the frog. After discovering the area, Daniel Ruzo made some bizarre accusations surrounding Marcahuasi. He wrote that the sculptures were made ??by a culture named “Masma” or “Fourth Humanity” almost 10.000 years ago. According to Ruzo, every 8,500 years the planet Earth suffers disruptions that threaten the existence of all living beings. Ruzo published articles stating that Marcahuasi was the site selected to preserve the knowledge of humanity. Man-made or not, Marcahuasi remains a remarkable archeological discovery that has become a popular tourist destination.
32. Rat King
Rat kings are formed when a number of rats become intertwined at their tails and get stuck together with blood, dirt, ice, excrement or simply knotted. The animals grow together forming one large beast. The earliest report of a rat king comes from 1564. Historically, the rat king was viewed as a bad omen, and probably with good reason. Rats carry a number of diseases, perhaps most notably plague, so it is understandable that people would associate bad luck with a large cluster of rats. Diseases tend to arise more readily when animals are confined close together, so the location of a rat king could be a breeding ground of disease.
Specimens of purported rat kings are rare and kept in some museums. The largest well-known mummified rat king was found in 1828 in a miller’s fireplace at Buchheim, Germany. It consists of 32 rats. The rat king is currently located in the museum Mauritianum in Altenburg (Thuringia). In 1930, a specimen was found in New Zealand that is displayed in the Otago Museum in Dunedin. It was composed of immature Rattus rattus whose tails were entangled by horse hair. Relatively few rat kings have been discovered in history. Depending on the source, the number of reported instances varies between 35 and 50 finds.
The occurrence is particularly associated with Germany, where the majority of rat kings have been located. In April 1929, a group of young forest mice was reported joined in Holstein, Germany, and there have been sightings of squirrel kings. Most rat kings show formations of callus at the fractures of their tails, which according to proponents show that the animals survived for an extended period of time with their tails tangled. A mummified rat king can help provide an understanding of the movement of rat populations. Sightings have been sporadic in modern history, with some rat kings being reported alive. The most recent claim comes from an Estonian farmer’s discovery in the Võrumaa region on January 16, 2005.
33. Sea of Galilee Boat
The Sea of Galilee Boat is an ancient fishing boat from the 1st century CE (the time of Jesus Christ), discovered in 1986 on the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. The remains of the boat were found by brothers Moshe and Yuval Lufan, fishermen from Kibbutz Ginnosar. The brothers are amateur archaeologists with an interest in discovering artifacts from Israel’s past. They found the ship after a drought reduced the water-level of the lake. The men reported their discovery to the authorities who sent out a team of archaeologists to investigate.
Realizing that the remains of the boat was of tremendous historical importance to Jews and Christians alike, a secret archaeological dig followed, undertaken by members of Kibbutz Ginosar, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and numerous volunteers. The boat measures at 27 feet (8.27 meters) long, 7.5 feet (2.3 meters) wide and with a maximum preserved height of 4.3 feet (1.3 meters). Excavating the boat from the mud without damaging it was a difficult process that lasted 12 days and nights. The boat was then submerged in a chemical bath for 7 years before it could be displayed at the Yigal Allon Museum in Kibbutz Ginosar.
The Sea of Galilee boat is made primarily of cedar planks joined together by pegged mortise-and-tenon joints and nails. It has ten different wood types, suggesting either a wood shortage or that it was made of scrap wood. The boat is historically important to Jews because it is an example of the type of boat used by their ancestors in the 1st century. Previously only references made by Roman authors, the Bible and mosaics have provided archeologists insight into the construction of these types of vessels. The boat is also important to Christians because it was the type of vessel that Jesus and his disciples used, several of whom were fishermen
Roy Chapman Andrews was an American explorer, adventurer and naturalist who became the director of the American Museum of Natural History. He is primarily known for leading a series of expeditions through the fragmented China into the Gobi Desert and Mongolia. In the summer of 1923, Andrews began his third Asiatic expedition in the Gobi Desert, while in Mongolia, a member of his team named Kan Chuen Pao discovered an enormous skull of an unidentified mammal. The lower jaw of the creature was not found. After investigation, the mammal was given the classification of Andrewsarchus mongoliensis.
Andrewsarchus lived during the Eocene epoch, roughly 45 and 36 million years ago. They had a long snout with large, sharp teeth and flat cheek teeth that may have been used to crush bones. Because Andrewsarchus is only known from a single skull, whether it was an active predator or merely a large scavenger is open to debate. The artifact is an enormous skull (32.8 in/83 cm long and 22/56 cm wide). If Andrewsarchus was proportioned in the same manner as Mesonyx obtusidens, it had a length from the snout to the back of the pelvis of about 11 feet (3.4 m) and a height from the ground to the shoulder or middle of the back of about 6 feet (1.8 m). In round numbers, it is possible that the creature may have been the largest land-dwelling carnivorous mammal known. The cranium is twice the length of a modern Alaskan brown bear and about triple the length of an American wolf.
35. Teotihuacan Sacrifice
36. The Grauballe Man
37. The Venetian Vampire
38. Uluburun Shipwreck
The Uluburun shipwreck is a Late Bronze Age shipwreck dated to the 14th century BCE. It was discovered off Uluburun (Grand Cape) situated about 6 miles southeast of Ka?, in south-western Turkey. The wreck was first discovered in the summer of 1982 by Mehmed Çakir, a local sponge diver from Yalikavak, a village near Bodrum. Between the years of 1984 to 1994, eleven consecutive campaigns took place totaling 22,413 dives, and revealing one of the most spectacular Bronze Age treasure troves ever discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. On its final journey, the Uluburun ship was sailing to the region west of Cyprus. The objects aboard the ship range from northern Europe to Africa, as far west as Sicily, and as far east as Mesopotamia, exhibiting products of nine or ten different cultures.
The ship, which was about 50 feet long, was built of cedar in the ancient shell-first tradition, with pegged tenon joints securing planks to each other and to the keel. Some of the hull planks were preserved under the cargo. They were fastened with pegged mortise-and-tenon joints. Upon discovery, there has been a detailed examination of Uluburun’s hull, but unfortunately no evidence of its framing. The ship carried 24 stone anchors, which are of a type almost completely unknown in the Aegean. The Uluburun ship’s cargo consisted mostly of raw materials and trade items.
The artifacts discovered include copper cargo totaling ten tons, approximately 175 glass ingots of cobalt blue turquoise and lavender, ivory in the form of whole and partial elephant trunks, hippopotamus teeth, Cypriot pottery, a ton of terebinthine resin in amphorae, a large collection of gold artifacts, ebony logs from Egypt, and ancient weapons. The ship carried one ton of tin. The tin from Uluburun is, at this time, the only pre-Roman tin with a reasonable provenance. The Uluburun shipwreck has fed into virtually every aspect of research on trade and society in the Late Bronze Age Aegean and Levant. It has helped historians understand the intensity of commercial trade during the Late Bronze Age.
Ardi is the designation of the fossilized skeletal remains of a female Ardipithecus ramidus, an early human-like species 4.4 million years old. It is the most complete early hominid specimen in existence, with most of the skull, teeth, pelvis, hands and feet intact. Fossils of Ardi were first found in Ethiopia in 1994, but it took 15 years for scientists to assess their significance. Ardi is a more complete set of remains than the Australopithecus Lucy, which was discovered in 1974. She is a more primitive hominid standing at 4 feet (120 cm) tall and weighing around 110 pounds (50 kg), Ardi was about 6 inches taller than Lucy but almost double her weight. The skeleton was discovered at a site called Aramis in the arid badlands near the Awash River in Ethiopia.
Ardi has feet that are better suited for walking than chimpanzees. Her canine teeth are smaller than humans, and equal in size between males and females. This suggests reduced male-to-male conflict, pair-bonding, and increased parental investment among species. ”Thus, fundamental reproductive and social behavioral changes probably occurred in hominids long before they had enlarged brains and began to use stone tools.” The remains shows evidence of small skull capacity akin to that of apes and a bipedal upright walk akin to that of humans, providing further evidence supporting the view that bipedalism preceded increase in brain size in human evolution. Researchers have inferred from the form of Ardi’s limbs and the presence of her opposable big toe that she was a facultative biped, bipedal when moving on the ground, but quadrupedal when moving in trees.
In trees, Ardi was nothing like modern apes. Modern chimps and gorillas have evolved limb anatomy specialized to climbing vertically up tree trunks, hanging and swinging from branches, and knuckle-walking on the ground. The wrists and finger joints of Ardi were highly flexible. As a result she would have walked on her palms as she moved in the trees. Wear patterns and isotopes have suggested a diet that includes fruits, nuts, and other forest foods. On October 1, 2009, the journal Science published an open-access collection of eleven articles, detailing many aspects of A. ramidus and its environment. “What Ardi tells us is there was this vast intermediate stage in our evolution that nobody knew about,” said Owen Lovejoy, an anatomist at Kent State University in Ohio.
40. The Baby Disposal
One thing you will realize by the end of this list is that people, at least in the past, were very fond of cannibalism, sacrifice, and torture. As a case in point, not long ago as several archaeologists were searching through the sewers beneath a Roman/Byzantine bathhouse in Israel when they came across something terrifying…baby bones, and lots of them. For whatever reason someone in the bathhouse above apparently felt compelled to dispose of hundreds of babies in the sewer below.