Here’s what we learned about Vikings, Mongolian women warriors, and more.
Despite its many difficulties, 2020 gave us some incredible discoveries.
Shortly after scientists confirmed that the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, owned Dead Sea Scroll forgeries, putting the authenticity of some 70 other known fragments in question, the University of Manchester realized that parchment scraps believed to be blank and worthless were actually part of a cache of ancient manuscripts.
Of course, 2020 reminded us that discoveries can be a bit of a bummer: museum visitors might be destroying The Scream, and a possible new Leonardo da Vinci drawing might prove the record-setting $450 million Salvator Mundi isn’t the Renaissance master’s painting. And this year also proved the groundbreaking discovery of the oldest example of the written Basque language to be a hoax.
And though some discoveries prompt skepticism, others can be earth-shattering, such as the largest, oldest Maya monument ever found. Other times, even the most minor details can become crucial, as when researchers discovered that Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With the Pearl Earring once had eyelashes.
All are fascinating. Here’s a roundup of what we learned.
Egyptian Minister of Antiquities and Tourism Khaled El Anany. Photo: Mohammed Fouad/dpa via Getty Images.
As always, Egypt was fruitful ground for archaeologists, with the discovery of the first ancient Egyptian funeral parlor, the world’s oldest Illustrated book, and a mummy buried with a secret painting gallery, among other finds.
But the biggest news in Egyptian archaeology this year was undoubtedly the excavation of over 100 painted sarcophagi in Saqqara, an ancient burial ground south of Cairo.
The Builders of Stonehenge Carried Its Giant Monoliths From Miles Away—and It Was Probably Built to Amplify Sound
Stonehenge. Photo courtesy of English Heritage.
Stonehenge made this list last year after archaeologists discovered that the smaller “bluestone” dolerite rocks in its central circle came from the Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-felin quarries in the Preseli Hills in Wales, some 143 miles away.
Now, thanks to a core sample drilled during a mid-century repair job—the 90-year-old who did the job recently returned it to the UK—experts have determined that the ancient monument’s outer ring of sarsens, which weigh as much as 30 tons, come from chalk hills of Marlborough Downs, 15 miles away.
And while Stonehenge remains ever-mysterious, acoustics engineers at the University of Salford in Manchester made a 1:12 scale model to demonstrate its acoustic properties—which may have been integral to its use.
There’s an Adorable Cat Carved Into the Hills of Peru
A feline figure has appeared in Peru’s Nazca Lines, according to the Culture Ministry.
A new geoglyph was discovered in the Nazca Desert, and it’s the oldest one in the region, dating to 200 BC to 100 BC. The feline figure measures 120 feet across, and is currently undergoing conservation.
There Were Ancient Women Warriors in Russia. And Mongolia. Oh, and Woman Hunters in Peru
A reconstruction of a Wilamaya Patjxa vicuña hunt by artist Matthew Verdolivo, UC Davis IET Academic Technology Services. Courtesy Randall Haas.
There were quite a few unexpected discoveries about women this year. In northern Mongolia, the discovery of the skeletons of two 1,500-year-old warrior women is new evidence as to the possible origins of the Chinese Mulan myth, popularized in the West by Disney.
A 4th-century BC dig-site in Russia revealed four women buried with their weapons. They would have been part of the matriarchal Scythian society that are said to have served as the inspiration for such strong female characters as Xena and Wonder Woman.
And going back even further, a 9,000-year-old Peruvian grave contained a woman in her late teens, laid to rest aside her hunting tools—suggesting its time to reconsider assumptions that men were the exclusive hunters in prehistoric society.
There Are Stunning Rock Paintings in the Amazon
The pre-Columbian rock art at Cerro Azul in Guaviare state, Colombia dates back around 12,000 years. Photo by Marie-Claire Thomas, courtesy Channel 4.
These stunningly beautiful Ice Age rock paintings of wild animals and humans discovered in the Columbian Amazon were created 12,500 years ago, but getting to them today was a challenge.
Archaeologists first discovered the massive cache of ancient artworks—there are tens of thousands of paintings—via satellite imagery, but had to get permission from the rebel dissidents who control the area to actually visit the sites in person.
This Tiny, Unassuming Bird Figurine Is the Oldest Chinese Sculpture in the World
A miniature bird figurine discovered at Lingjing (Henan Province, China), dated to 13,500 years ago, is now the oldest-known example of Chinese art. Photo courtesy of Francesco d’Errico and Luc Doyon.
This Paleolithic bird figurine, carved from a blackened bone, may not look particularly impressive, but it dates from 13,500 years ago, making it the oldest example of 3-D art from East Asia.
And its surfaces show evidence of the use of different types of tools, indicating the artist was using well-established carving techniques. It is also unique in that the bird is perched on a pedestal, suggesting it is part of a previously unknown artistic tradition.
An Alaskan Volcano May Have Been the Downfall of the Roman Republic
Detailed records of past explosive volcanic eruptions are archived in the Greenland ice sheet and accessed through deep-drilling operations. Photo by Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, paleoclimatology professor and researcher at the Centre for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
The assassination of Julius Caesar in the year 44 BC may not be to blame for the fall of the Roman Republic.
The culprit, a recent study suggests, might actually have been 6,000 miles away, where the Okmok volcano exploded on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands the year before, unleashing clouds of ash that triggered a famine that contributed to the social unrest that followed.
Climate scientists made the breakthrough through samples of six arctic ice cores, which can be dated like tree rings, comparing the volcanic tephra in the ice to the rock chemistry of volcanos around the world, definitively matching it to Okmok.
Ancient Viking Artifacts Emerged Beneath Melting Ice (Thanks, Climate Change)
Members of the Secrets of the Ice team surveying the Lendbreen pass. Photo by Johan Wildhagen, Palookaville.
After ice caps and glaciers melted in Norway, archaeologists found a trove of some 800 Viking artifacts that had been frozen for up to a thousand years.
The discovery—the first of its kind in Northern Europe—suggests that the mountains were a well-used travel route, rather than a physical barrier.
This Ice Age Structure Made From the Bones of 60 Wooly Mammoths Is Baffling
A 25,000-year-old structure of mammoth bones discovered in Russia. Photo: A.E. Dudin.
What’s 25,000 years old and made entirely of mammoth bones? A mysterious Ice Age structure built in Paleolithic Russia.
Under excavation since 2014, the site measures 40 feet across and features bones from 60 mammoths. Archaeologists still don’t know why or how it was built, or what it was used for.
A Medical Student Finally Found the Fabled Forrest Fenn Treasure
Forrest Fenn’s treasure was allegedly buried in an ornate, Romanesque box filled with gold nuggets, gold coins and other gems. Courtesy of Forrest Fenn.
Over the course of the last decade, as many as 300,000 people may have tried to uncover the bronze chest full of gold, precious gems, and other valuables said to be worth $2 million that the eccentric New Mexico art dealer Forrest Fenn hid somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
This year, shortly before Fenn died at age 90, someone finally succeeded in that occasionally deadly quest. Due to pending litigation, the finder revealed his identity only at the end of the year, but is keeping the location of the discovery a secret—although some treasure hunters believe the hoard’s hiding place was in Yellowstone National Park.