The Moai statues of Easter Island.

12 Greatest Archeological Discoveries Ever

The average global lifespan is 73 years. It can therefore be difficult to comprehend the scale of human history. Looking back on black and white photos of our grandparents feels like gazing into an alternate reality of sorts. How quickly cultural trends and technology change, and yet, there is also an illusion of solidity to the world, and the people within it. Taking this same thought experiment back to previous millenia, one may be tempted to compare a smartphone to a stone tool and judge modern man to be the superior form. However, since the age of archeology dawned in the past few centuries, ancient monuments have been continually discovered that baffle the public and experts alike. The age, scale, sophistication, and/or stories behind these rediscovered megaliths, cities, writings, and inspired projects would put 21st century minds and machines to the task. The following are twelve such archeological finds that cannot be overstated. 

Gobekli Tepe

The ancient ruins of Gobekli Tepe.

Gobekli Tepe is a paradigm-smashing megalithic site – the oldest of its kind, and by a significant margin, anywhere in the world. The T-shaped limestone pillars, some weighing upwards of 10 tons, feature carvings of humans, snakes, spiders, lions, scorpions, and other depictions that relate more to primal fears and intrigue, rather than sources of sustenance, mark out over 20 circular structures that are thought to have been used for ritualistic or funerary purposes – perhaps both.

What is astonishing about this discovery within the Germuş mountains of Southeastern Anatolia, near Urfa, Turkey (i.e. Upper Mesopotamia), is that it was deliberately buried (until the 1990s) around 11,000 years ago, which means that so-called hunter-gathers of the pre-Neolithic age were able to devote enormous effort and resources to the building of what is now called Gobekli Tepe (i.e. "Belly Hill"). All of this came about in the apparent absence of agriculture, permanent settlements, or even formalized religious beliefs that were the impetus for other famous monuments and thought to have only developed once civilization took the immediate edge off of the daily pressure to fulfill basic needs. With that said, the hunter-gather notion has been thoroughly challenged by the continued excavation of Gobekli Tepe, which does show evidence of prolonged habitation. Clearly, the established timeline of civilization is in need of a serious revision. 


The ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii in Italy.
The ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii in Italy with Mount Vesuvius in the backdrop.

Imagine going about your day – a summer day like any other in this seemingly stable world – only to be wiped out by a freak cataclysm, and consequently frozen in time, or rather, immortalized by volcanic ash and debris. When Mount Vesuvius, a stratovolcano near the modern day Italian city of Naples, exploded on a fateful morning in A.D. 79, the once opulent Roman city of Pompeii, along with slews of its citizens, was extinguished, buried, and ultimately, perfectly preserved for archeologists to rediscover in the mid-18th century. The now popular tourist site is still only about 2/3rds uncovered, but rather than chisel away at the remaining homes, attention has been shifted to maintaining what now sees the light of day, as well as rain, wind, pollution, and human activity. 

Dead Sea Scrolls

Dead Sea Scroll at Qumran, Israel
Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, Israel.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a massive catalog of miraculously maintained texts that were composed between the 8th century B.C. and the eleventh century A.D. They not only mark the earliest known version of the Old Testament (i.e. the Hebrew Bible)  – surpassing the Masoretic Text by over 1,000 years, but also cover a wide range of more mundane topics, such as administrative records and marriage/divorce documents, in several languages. The most famous and numerous fragments were discovered in caves of Qumran, near the Northwest shore of the Dead Sea. These were uncovered between 1947 and 1956, while other related parchment, papyrus, and copper puzzle pieces have been connected across the Jordan Jalley and Judean Desert. 

Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta army soldiers in the mausoleum tomb of Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China, Xian, Shaanxi province.
Terracotta army soldiers in the mausoleum tomb of Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China, Xian, Shaanxi province.

In 1974, while digging a well outside the Chinese city of Xi'an, workers stumbled across a life-size clay soldier. Thus began an intensive archaeological dig that would reveal over 8,000, individualized warriors now known as the Terracotta. This imitation army was buried in the vicinity of Qin Shi Huang Di (a.k.a. Ying Zheng), for the supposed purpose of accompanying the First Emperor of China (who reigned from 246 B.C. - 210 B.C.) into the afterlife. The massive mausoleum also contains clay horses, wooden chariots, and weapons of war that are still in immaculate condition. It is estimated that over 700,000 people worked on the elaborate and imaginative project. 

Machu Picchu

The ancient ruins of Machu Pichu in Peru.
The ancient ruins of Machu Pichu in Peru.

Built at the height of the Inca Empire and abandoned in a flash upon the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores (either because of the conflict, or ensuing smallpox plague) in the 1530s, and reintroduced to the mainstream in 1911, Machu Picchu is one of the most-visited sites in South America, and most-recognizable places in the world. Fixed atop the precarious summit of the eponymous Peruvian Andes mountain (which means "old peak" in the native Quechua language), Machu Picchu consists of over 150 buildings and 3,000 stone steps spread over a 5-mile distance. Many theories exist as to what the purpose of this spectacularly scenic project was, but no definitive explanation has yet risen above the rest. And because so much of the culture was destroyed in conjunction with the once great civilization, Machu Picchu is likely to remain as shrouded in mystery as it is tropical jungle and low-lying clouds. Machu PIcchu can be reached as part of a day-trip from Cusco, or the old fashioned way – trekking for four days along the Inca Trail. 


Temple of the Great Jaguar at Tikal in Guatemala
Temple of the Great Jaguar at Tikal in Guatemala.

Another spectacular, long-lost Latin American site is the massive Mayan city now known as Tikal, but perhaps once called Yax Mutal, after the ruler Yax Ehb Xook. The complex hides deep in the jungle of the Petén Department in Northern Guatemala, in what is now Tikal National Park, and consists of at least 3,000 structures, including many pyramid-like temples and other extraordinary limestone creations. The area was perhaps inhabited as far back as 1,000 B.C., with cultural developments beginning around 700 B.C. The core construction was completed by 300 B.C. and the city was at its prime between 200 to 900 A.D., before rapidly declining over the next century. The jungle overtook the site after it was abandoned, but was rediscovered in the 19th century. Today, tourism is the main source of funding for ongoing excavations. 

Tutankhamun's Tomb 

Mask of Tutankhamun.
Mask of Tutankhamun.

King Tutankhamun, or "King Tut," was forgotten in the sands of time until his tomb was excavated in 1922. Now, he is among the most well-known of Egyptian Pharaohs. Tutankhamen, a name which means "living image of Aten" (the sun god), was born around 1341 B.C., inherited the throne from his father at the age of nine, and ruled until his untimely death, just ten years later (digital imaging and DNA analysis suggests malaria or a severe infection). To date, King Tut's tomb is the most intact burial chamber to emerge from the famed Valley of the Kings. It was hidden under 150,000 tons of rocks, and contained so many precious artifacts that it took a full decade to catalog. These treasures provide an invaluable snapshot into Egyptian life at that time. 


The mysterious arrangement of stones at Stonehenge, United Kingdom.
The mysterious arrangement of stones at Stonehenge, United Kingdom.

One of the planet's most iconic and mysterious megalithic structures is the circle of stone trilithons on Salisbury Plain of Wiltshire in Southern England. Researchers believe that Stonehenge was built in three phases, over the course of 1,500 years (between 3,100 B.C. and 1600 B.C.), and required a total of 20 to 30 million hours of labor. The site was rediscovered by John Aubrey in the 17th century, but even after centuries of study, the function of Stonehenge is still mostly a mystery. While it is generally agreed that the structure marks an important burial ground, its precise astrological alignments suggest a much more complex story. This massive construction project was accomplished by a variety of Neolithic wanderers who had yet to invent the wheel, but were somehow able to transport heavy stones from as far as 200 miles away, position and raise 40 ton pillars, and even hoist the behemoth cross beams to connect the circle – and all for a mission that went unrealized for the lives of most of the builders. 

Angkor Wat

Arial view of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Aerial view of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Five miles North of the Northern Cambodian city of Siem Reap sprawls one of, if not the largest, religious monument in the world. Angkor Wat is attributed to Emperor Suryavarman II, who ruled from 1113 to 1150 – serving as the capital of the Khmer empire (Angkor translates as "capital city" and Wat means "temple"). The whopping 400 acre site was initially a Hindu temple, dedicated to the god Vishnu and designed to mimic Mount Meru, but was repurposed as a Buddhist temple by the end of the 12th century, and remained an important monument for practicing Buddhists until the 1800s. After a period of abandonment and disrepair, the temple was reintroduced to the public in the 1840s by French explorer, Henri Mouhot. Though it unfortunately sustained major damage in the 1970s, Angkor Wat has rebounded into a hugely-popular tourist attraction. 


Derinkuyu underground city in Cappadocia, Turkey.
Derinkuyu underground city in Cappadocia, Turkey.

Sometimes amazing archeological discoveries are made after decades of painstaking investigation, but on other occasions some of the greatest findings reveal themselves through a mere fluke. The largest underground city in the world, Elengubu, but now named Derinkuyu, belongs to the latter category. In 1963, a man living in the Central Anatolia region of Turkey – an area known as Cappadocia, noticed that his chickens were escaping through a small opening in the wall of his basement. When he cleared more space to get a look at the hidden chamber, he found the first of what would eventually eclipse 600 entrances (spaced throughout the general area) that led to a subterranean labyrinth. This ancient city, which is attributed to the Hittites, who may have started the bold project around 1200 B.C., consists of 18 levels of tunnels that amount to hundreds of miles of intertwined coverage, plunge as deep as 280 feet below the surface, and possibly connect to hundreds of other underground cities. Given the eras of conflict that saw several distinct groups occupying the city (which had an estimated peak population of 20,000 people) it is believed that Derinkuyu was primarily designed to escape invading armies. 


The beautiful ancient city of Petra in Jordan.
The beautiful ancient city of Petra in Jordan

The second of the "Seven New Wonders of the World" to make this list (along with Machu Picchu) is the stunning ancient city of Petra – affectionately named "Rose City" after the hue of the mountains it is carved from. Petra was created by the Arab Bedouin tribe known as the Nabateans, who used an aesthetically-mesmerizing architectural approach of chiseling fantastic structures directly into the dramatic rock landscape of what is now Southwestern Jordan, as well as an inventive water management system that allowed them (followed by the Romans, Byzantines, and most recently, the Petra Bedouin tribespeople) to thrive here even during the harsh flood and drought cycles of the desert. The unique metropolis/trading post dates back to at least 312 B.C., which is the earliest reference in recorded history, and was formerly utilized until the 8th century A.D., before it was reintroduced to the modern world in 1812 by Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. 

The Moai Of Easter Island

The Moai statues of Easter Island.

Rapa Nui, or as it is commonly known, Easter Island, is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world. The fact that Polynesian explorers established a firm presence on this tiny rock in the middle of the South Pacific (2,200 miles West of Chile, of which Rapa Nui falls under the banner of) around 1000 A.D. is astonishing in its own right. But add in the fact that these early inhabitants built 1,043 (currently uncovered) colossal humanoid statues, known as moai, out of volcanic stone, reaching an average height of 13 feet and weighing 10 tons (with the largest being 69 feet tall and weighing 200 tons!), and Rapa Nui takes on another order of magnitude of mystique. The indigenous population never completely disappeared, but did dwindle dramatically from a combination of deforestation, and then, upon arrival of the Europeans on Easter Sunday in 1722, epidemics, slave trading, and other oppressive forces. The native numbers have since rebounded from as low as 111 to around 2,000, but unfortunately, in October of 2022, hundreds of moai were damaged by a rampant fire. 

No matter how advanced civilizations get, the sun eventually sets on all eras. Seemingly indestructible structures are abandoned, religions evolve, systems collapse, and subsequent generations invariably forget what came before. The careful art of archeology gives us a chance to uncover the past, so that we can better understand our own species, and what the future may hold. These twelve discoveries show what is possible, in both an inspiring and humbling way. 


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