The dream of every archaeologist is to make a find that changes the way we think about history. Something ancient, unexpected and marvelous. While most archaeology isn’t as exciting as it’s portrayed in movies, some of it is. These archaeological discoveries were all truly incredible. Many of them pose mysteries that remain unsolved.
For starters, this claw, found in 1986 in a cave on New Zealand’s Mount Owen, was puzzling to people. Was it the discarded claw of some unknown monster? No, it turned out to be a very well-preserved Upland Moa claw. The Upland Moa was an enormous prehistoric bird.
2003 was one of the most earth-shaking years in the history of anthropology and archaeology. It was the year scientists discovered the remains of a small hominid species that has been colloquially named “Hobbit” on the island of Flores in the Philippines. The Hobbit’s proper name is Homo floresiensis. They stood about three and a half feet tall and, perhaps most remarkably of all, only went extinct 12,000 years ago. Some people speculate that the region’s “Orang Pendek” sightings, the South Asian version of Bigfoot, may indicate relic populations of Hobbits still living today.
Chichen Itza was a large Mayan city that was built well before the arrival of Columbus. The city was built in what is now Yucatán State in Mexico. It boasts a magnificent pyramid, and is one of Mexico’s most-visited tourism sites. Its architecture is surprisingly diverse, probably a reflection of the city boasting the most culturally heterogenous population of the pre-Columbian world.
The Piri Reis Map is a remarkably accurate map of Europe and Northern Africa that was named after the cartographer who assembled it. Reis drew the map using fragments of many other maps as reference. It was drawn sometime in the early part of the 16th century.
DEAD SEA SCROLLS
The Dead Sea Scrolls are the most important religious discovery of the 20th Century. The scrolls were written between 408 BC and 318 AD. There are 981 of them, which add a great deal of apocrypha to the Biblical canon.
Archaeologists made a shocking discovery underneath bathhouses of Roman antiquity. They found collections of baby bones in the sewers built beneath them. Killing babies that were seen as unfit was a common practice in Sparta, but not in Rome. The find suggests that the Romans took a grisly note from their Spartan neighbors.
The Sacsayhuaman is a walled complex that was built by the Incans outisde of Cusco, Peru. The walls are an engineering marvel. They are constructed from slabs of stone that were so precisely cut that there is zero gap between them.
THE BAGHDAD BATTERY
Like something out of an X-Files episode, archaeologists discovered an artifact of what they believe to be an ancient battery. The so-called “Baghdad Battery” actually probably worked. The vessels were able to produce a low-level electric charge. If enough of them were used together, they could have powered something. But power what?
The Roman city of Pompeii was destroyed in 79 AD by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The volcano’s ash blanketed the city, trapping and preserving its residents in the postures they held when they died. A Spanish military engineer named Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre found the remains of the nearby city Herculaneum. Ten years later, Pompeii was found by Giuseppe Fiorelli.
When you think of cave paintings, you probably picture crude pictograms of stick figures throwing spears at animals that look like they were drawn by someone in kindergarten. But cave paintings found in Altamaria by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola prove that ancient humans were capable of great works of art. The figures were so sophisticated that many scientists refused to believe that they actually dated to the Paleolithic era. Carbon dating proved them wrong.
Knossos is best known as the location of the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. The city was discovered in 1878 by Arthur Evans and Minos Kalokairinos. Buildings at the city’s entrance bore images of a bull, leading researchers to believe that Knossos is the location where the Minotaur legend originated.
THE PILATE STONE
This find seems to corroborate the story of Pontius Pilate as a real, living person. The Pilate Stone was discovered in Judea, in the Caesarea region. The stone, which was likely used as a staircase in an Ancient Roman theater, bears an inscription that roughly translates as“To the Divine Augusti [this] Tiberieum … Pontius Pilate … prefect of Judea … has dedicated [this].”
THE OLDUVAI GORGE
Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge is one of the largest archaeological sites on the planet. The gorge runs for about thirty miles through deep ravines, which bear the markings and artifacts of ancient hominid occupants. The gorge has produced multiple animal bones with hominid tooth marks on them, as well as multiple samples of rock art.
The Hagar Qim is a group of freestanding structures that was built about a thousand years before the Egyptian pyramids. They also predate Stonehenge. Hagar Qim was found in the early 1800’s.
The Romans were fond of metal “dodecahedron” sculptures, and nobody knows why. The sculptures, all twelve sided and hexagonal, are found throughout the ancient Roman empire. It is totally unclear what their purpose was. Some think they were used to measure distance, others think they were candle holders or simply decorative.
Finding spearheads isn’t anything particularly remarkable in the world of archaeology. But these spearheads, found in South Africa, were. They date to around 200,000 years ago, and prove that humans used tools much earlier in our history than previously supposed.
This boat was found in the Sea of Galilee by two brothers, Moshe and Yuval Lufan, during a drought that dropped water levels. The boat was dated back to the first century AD, and would have been typical of the kind of boat used during the time of Jesus.
The boat was 27 feet long and 7.5 feet long. Researchers kept it in a chemical bath for seven years to mitigate any further decomposition. It’s now displayed at the Yigal Allon Museum in Kibbutz Ginosar.
Marcahuasi is a controversial archaeological find. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a series of stone carvings meant to look like human faces, or it’s a series of rocks that have eroded naturally and our brains interpret incorrectly as artifice. The figures were discovered in 1952 by Daniel Ruzo, who made various specious claims about how the site was selected by ancient peoples as a place to preserve human knowledge through cycles of extinction.
During an archaeological excursion into Mongolia in 1923 and 1924, the naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews discovered an enormous skull of a previously unknown animal. The animal would be later named Adrewsarchus, in his honor. It was a large prehistoric mammal, that probably weighed between two and four thousand pounds. It is believed to have had the strongest jaws of any mammal in history, but not much is known about its habits.
Workers on a railroad in Dorset discovered this mass grave of ancient Viking warriors. The Vikings were all beheaded. Researchers at first thought that the grave was the result of a raid, but the beheadings were too clean to have been weathered in combat, and were done from the front, which was atypical. We still don’t know what happened.
Isla del Caño in Costa Rica is the site of an alien-seeming architectural mystery. In the Diquís Delta, there is a collection of large, perfectly spherical volcanic stones. Nobody has any idea how or why they were made. Some speculate that the Chibchan people may have used them to adorn the homes of chieftains. The stones were designated a World Heritage Site in 2014.
This puzzling artifact was found in 1901, by a team of archaeologists who recovered it from a Greek shipwreck. The Mechanism is roughly two thousand years old, and features elaborate gearworks that bear strange inscriptions. Researchers believe it may have been used as an astrological timepiece. It was an extraordinarily sophisticated piece of engineering for the time period when it was made.
THE TERRACOTTA ARMY
The terracotta army of China was discovered completely by accident. Farmers in the Shaanxi province just happened to stumble upon the archaeological marvel. The army’s soldiers are life sized, meant to guard the emperor after his death.
Stonehenge is one of the most famous archaeological sites on the planet. Aided, perhaps, by its association with Spinal Tap. The henge was constructed by Druids on a Wiltshire, England moor. Radiocarbon dating has determined the henge to have been constructed sometime around 3,000 BC.
STONE ANIMAL TRAPS
If you saw this from the air, it would be easy to leap to the conclusion that it was made by aliens. Well, maybe not easy, but the thought would certainly cross your mind. Rock formations like this one are found across deserts in the Middle East, especially in Jordan, Egypt and Israel. They were constructed by ancient peoples to trap large game animals.
THE NAZCA LINES
Long claimed as evidence for Earthside visitations from aliens, the Nazca lines are, regardless of their origins, beautiful. They are found in southern Peru, and depict animals, people and plants. The area’s red topsoil, when stripped away, reveals a lighter sediment below. Their intended purpose is unknown, but may have had something to do with cross-tribal communication.
While pyramids have been built by ancient peoples in multiple parts of the world, the Egyptian pyramids are by far the most famous. There are 138 pyramids in Egypt, but the ones most familiar to us are in Cairo. They are also the largest. The pyramids were built as tombs for the pharaohs, and have inspired a long history of myth that often overshadows the structures themselves.
THE SHROUD OF TURIN
The Shroud of Turin is a piece of cloth that appears to bear the likeness of Jesus Christ. Many people believe it to have been Christ’s burial garment. Radiocarbon dating conducted on the shroud in the 1980’s placed its creation to sometime during the Middle Ages, well after an historical Christ would have lived. The Shroud continues to be controversial – the Catholic Church has neither endorsed nor condemned it as a genuine religious artifact.
Gobekli Tepe is a temple found in Turkey’s Southern Anatolia region. It was found, incredibly, in 1996, by a team of German archaeologists. They originally thought that it was a collection of neolithic sanctuaries, but nobody has offered a conclusive theory about what its original purpose was. The site is 11,000 years old, making the architecture on display remarkably advanced.
THE COPPER SCROLL
Of all the Dead Sea Scrolls uncovered, the copper scroll is perhaps the most impressive. It is also like an artifact out of a kids’ action-adventure movie. The scroll describes a huge stockpile of gold and silver, but doesn’t give any clues as to where it can be found. Archaeologists generally agree that the scroll was made around 70 AD.
King Tut’s tomb was found by a British archaeologist in 1922. It was a huge story at the time, which captivated the attention of people across the world. The tomb was full of riches, as well as Tut himself, sealed in an ornate sarcophagus. Amazingly, forensic examination of Tut’s remains show that at some point, his body was on fire. Researchers speculate that his embalming may not have gone entirely according to plan.
The Voynich Manuscript is one of the most bizarre books ever authored. It was written sometime in the early 15th Century, possibly in northern Italy during the Renaissance. It is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book vendor who purchased it in 1912. The Manuscript’s 240 surviving pages display fantastical illustrations and text written in a totally unknown, totally indecipherable (as of yet) language. Cryptographers have been banging their heads against it for over a hundred years now and nobody has ever decoded it.
THE ROSETTA STONE
The Rosetta Stone was one of the most important archaeological finds ever made. A French soldier came across it in Egypt in 1799. The stone tablet displayed three blocks of text, a decree of King Ptolmey V issued around 200 BC, translated into Egyptian hieroglyphics, Ancient Greek and Demotic Script. It was the key that allowed us to decipher hieroglyphics.
Around the world, there are certain archaeological sites that yield a disproportionately large amount of finds for their size. The ancient city of Sanxingdui in Sichuan, China is one such place. The city was occupied around the 12th Century BC, and contains a huge amount of Bronze Age artifacts. It was first discovered in 1929. It was shaped like a trapezoid and was surrounded by broad canals that doubled as both irrigation and defense.
EASTER ISLAND – MOAI
The Easter Islands are best known for the enormous human stone figures that decorate them. It is still unknown how the island’s residents could have constructed such enormous statues, or why.
Khatt Shebib is an ancient wall that was built in Jordan. When it was first constructed, the wall was only 3 feet and change high. People are still speculating about what purpose the wall could possibly have served. It is now in very poor condition. Pottery found at the wall dates back to 312 BC.
MYSTERIOUS STONE CIRCLES
Unlike the stone arrangements that were built to trap game animals, researchers are still in the dark over what these stone circles in Jordan and Syria were meant for. There are eleven circles in total, averaging about 1,300 feet in diameter.
Glasgow, Scotland is home to an archaeological oddity called the Cochno Stone. The Stone is 43 feet by 26 feet, and is about 5,000 years old. Its surface was marked with swirls, called ‘cups and ring marks,’ that have been found at various archaeological sites around the world. The Cochno Stone was discovered in 1887.
In 2015, during a radar sweep of the area surrounding Stonehenge, scientists made a remarkable discovery. They found deep pits that likely once held up huge wooden posts. The posts may have formed an arena.
UNDERWATER MOUND IN THE SEA OF GALILEE
In a truly puzzling find, researchers discovered a huge stone structure underneath the Sea of Galilee in 2003. The structure, 32 feet high and 230 feet across, is most likely composed of stacked rocks.
THE ROMAN JAR
This somewhat inauspicious-looking jar, found in a Museum of Ontario storage facility, is actually quite remarkable. The jar, which dates to Roman times, was probably used as a lamp, or as a cage for a small animal. It is totally unique in the archaeological record – there are no other jars like it from ancient Rome.
The ancient Greeks claimed that Atlanteans used a rare metal called orichalcum. Which made a 1988 shipwreck find of orichalcum ingots exciting. The ingots were found off the coast of Sicily. Orichalcum is a brass alloy.
This medieval sword was fished out of the River Witham in 1825. It bears a mysterious inscription that has, to this day, defied decryption. The British Library has appealed to the public for help in solving the mystery. The sword would have been used by a knight, and was likely made in Germany.
RUSSIAN MYSTERY DISCS
Russia’s Volgograd region has produced a truly weird find. Enormous discs, over twelve of them, have been found there, and nobody knows where they came from or what they were made for.